Essential Architecture- Washington D.C.

National Building Museum (Pension Building)


Montgomery C. Meigs


Washington, DC




a mixture of Renaissance Revival and Romanesque, with classical interior elements




museum (former Pension Bureau building)


The National Building Museum's Corinthian columns are among the largest in the world measuring 75 ft. (23 m) tall and 8 ft. (2.4 m) in diameter.

The Pension Building (National Building Museum)

The National Building Museum is a museum in Washington, D.C. dedicated to "architecture, design, engineering, construction, and urban planning." It was created by an act of Congress in 1980, and is a private non-profit institution. The museum is located adjacent to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial and the Judiciary Square Metro station.

The museum's large open space hosts various temporary exhibits, such as an Amish barn raising, types of fencing, and green design. It also has an excellent bookstore.

It is housed in the former Pension Bureau building, a brick structure completed in 1887 and designed by Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, the U.S. Army quartermaster general. The building is notable for several architectural features including the spectacular interior columns and a frieze sculpted by Caspar Buberl stretching around the exterior of the building depicting Civil War soldiers in scenes somewhat reminiscent of those on Trajan's Column in Rome as well as the Horsemen Frieze of the Parthenon in Athens. The vast interior, measuring 316 ft. (96 m) × 116 ft. (35 m), has been used to hold inauguration balls since the building's construction and a Presidential Seal is set into the floor near the south entrance.

Following the end of the Civil War the United States Congress passed legislation that greatly extended the scope of pension coverage for both veterans and for their survivors and dependents, notably their widows and orphans. This ballooned the number of staff that was needed to implement and administer the new benefits' system to over 1,500 and quickly required a new building out of which to run it all. Meigs was chosen to design and construct the new building and in doing so broke away from the established Greco-Roman models that had been the basis of government buildings in Washington D.C. up until then, as was to continue following the Pension Building's completion. Meigs based his design on Italian Renaissance precedents, notably Rome's Palazzo Farnese and the Palazzo della Cancelleria.

Included in his design was a sculpted frieze executed by Caspar Buberl. Since creating a work of sculpture of that size was well out of Meigs' budget he had Buberl create 28 different scenes, totaling 69 feet (21 m) in length, which were then mixed and slightly modified to create the continuous 1,200 foot (365 m) long parade that includes over 1,300 figures. Because of the way that the 28 sections are modified and mixed up, it is only by careful examination that the frieze reveals its self to be the same figures repeated over and over. The sculpture includes infantry, navy, artillery, cavalry and medical components as well as a good deal of the supply and quartermaster functions, since that was where Meigs served during the Civil War.

Meigs's correspondence with Buberl (see Joyce McDaniel) reveal that Meigs insisted that a black teamster — "must be a negro, a plantation slave, freed by war" — be included in the quartermaster panel. This figure was ultimately to assume a position in the center, over the west entrance to the building.

When Philip Sheridan was asked to comment on the building his reply echoed the sentiment of much of the Washington establishment of the day, that the only thing that he could find wrong with the building was that it was fireproof. A similar quote is also attributed to William Tecumseh Sherman so the story might be apocryphal.

The completed building, sometimes referred to as "Meigs Old Red Barn" was created by using more than 1,500,000 bricks, which, according to the wit of the day, were each counted by the parsimonious Meigs.


National Building Museum