U.S. Pension Building, Washington, DC

Building History

The Pension Building, now the National Building Museum, stands as a memorial to Civil War veterans. From 1887- 1926, the Pension Bureau distributed $8,300,000 in benefits to 2,763,063 veterans (and their survivors) of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Civil War.

In 1881 the U.S. Congress directed General Montgomery C. Meigs (1816-1892), Quartermaster of the U.S. Army and a graduate of West Point, to develop a fireproof building for the Pension Bureau. Meigs envisioned the building as both office space and as a monument to those who died fighting in the Civil War. In commemoration of those heroes, Caspar Buberl (1834-1899) sculpted a 1200-foot terra cotta frieze depicting the Union's Army and Navy.

Construction began in 1882 and ended in 1887. Seeking to create a light and airy environment for federal workers, Meigs incorporated numerous ingenious engineering innovations into the structure, his last project. Responsible for such important engineering feats as the Capitol Dome, Meigs considered the Pension Building to be his greatest achievement. Others did not agree, disparaging it as "Meigs's old red barn."

When the Pension Bureau became part of the U.S. Veterans Administration in 1930, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) took over the building. An approved expansion plan was abandoned due to concern that an enlarged Pension Building would reduce space for growth of the nearby Courts. By 1950, when GAO moved into its own modern facility, the Pension Building was considered obsolete and demolition was contemplated.

Public perceptions of the building began changing in the late 1950s when an exhibition by the American Institute of Architects promoted it as worth preservation. In 1969 it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1980 an Act of Congress designated the Pension Building as the site of a new museum celebrating American achievements in the building arts. The National Building Museum opened in 1985, the same year the building was designated a National Historic Landmark.

Architecture

The monumental Pension Building was a technological achievement at the time of its construction in 1882 and a fitting tribute to those who served in the Civil War. The red-brick building, measuring 400 feet by 200 feet, occupies the entire city block bounded by Fourth, Fifth, F, and G Streets, N.W., in downtown Washington, DC.

Massive in size and scale, the Italianate Renaissance Revival building is twenty-seven bays long on the north and south elevations and thirteen bays wide on the west and east elevations. The lower exterior facades are modeled after Antonio da Sangallo's Palazzo Farnese in Rome. The exterior walls are load-bearing brick, measuring 75 feet high and 2 feet 4 inches thick. They are composed of common brick faced with pressed brick, decorative masonry, and ornamental terra cotta. This was an early use of ornamental terra cotta, which was an affordable substitute for carved stone or iron. The terra cotta frieze designed by Bohemian-born sculptor Caspar Buberl depicts a continuous parade of Civil War military units represented in six themes--infantry, cavalry, artillery, navy, medicine, and quartermaster. The entrances centered on each elevation are defined by projecting brick archways. The main frieze of each entry is ornamented with carved panels depicting the military units of the Civil War. The western entry is the Gate of the Quartermaster, the southern entry is the Gate of the Infantry, the eastern entry is the Naval Gate, and the northern entry is the Gate of the Invalids.

The interior plan of the Pension Building is dominated by a full-height hall or atrium at the center, with interconnecting rooms at the perimeter. The Great Hall is divided into three courts by two sets of four colossal Corinthian columns, supporting the metal and glass roof structure. Each column rises 75 feet, rests on a base 8 feet in diameter, and is crowned by a molded plaster capital and an abacus of cast iron. The cornice has two hundred forty-four niches containing life-size plaster busts representing eight prototypical Americans of the building world. A terra cotta-trimmed circular fountain is located in the center of the Great Hall.

Lining the perimeter of the Great Hall are brick arches that spring from seventy-two cast-iron Ionic columns, creating two levels of open arcaded galleries that serve as corridors to offices on the first and second floors. Four main stairways, centrally located on each side of the building near the entrances, extend from the first to the third floors. The office of the Pension Commissioner on the second floor retains its original fireplace and the only decorated ceiling original to the building.

Numerous technological innovations were incorporated into the building's design. A fresh air ventilation system was based on the premise that the central atrium could act as a giant flue. The exposed roof structure, ornate fenestration, and the full height of the Great Hall acted as a chimney to exhaust unwanted heat. Air was automatically drawn from the perimeter of the building through the clerestory windows, which were opened by a mechanical system. The large central hall with perimeter offices ensured there were no dark corridors, with daylight and air permeating every space.

In anticipation of use as the National Building Museum, the first renovation phase of the Great Hall was completed in early 1985. The roof was replaced and the facades and terra cotta frieze were restored. As part of the U.S. General Services Administration's Art in Architecture program, four markers representing themes associated with the building arts were designed in 1990 by sculptor Raymond Kaskey (1943- ) and placed at each corner of the site. In 1991 extensive research was conducted prior to conservation of the Casper Buberl painted terra cotta panels located in the stairwells of the building. Restoration work continued through the 1990s under the direction of the Smith Group.

Significant Events

1881: Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs designs the Pension Building.

1882-1887: The Pension Building is constructed.

1930: The Pension Building becomes the U.S. General Accounting Office.

1934: Congress authorizes expansion of the Pension Building to continue serving the U.S. General Accounting Office. The plan is not implemented.

1950: The U.S. General Accounting Office vacates the building and the U.S. Civil Service Commission becomes the primary tenant.

1967: The U.S. General Services Administration commissions a study for the Pension Building and rehabilitation is recommended.

1969: The Pension Building is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

1972-1978: The DC Superior Court occupies the building.

1980: The building is designated by an Act of Congress as the site of the new National Building Museum.

1985: The Pension Building is designated a National Historic Landmark.

Building Facts

Architect: Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs

Construction Dates: 1882-1887

Landmark Status: National Historic Landmark

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Location: 401 F Street, NW

Architectural Style: Italian Renaissance Revival

Primary Materials: Red brick with brick and terra cotta ornament

Prominent Features: Great Hall with 75-foot high columns; Exterior terra cotta frieze of Civil War military units by sculptor Caspar Buberl

U.S. Pension Building, Washington, DC

The Pension Building, constructed in the style of Renaissance Classicism, is configured in a traditional Italian Renaissance plan. The building, a 15.5 million brick colossus, is 400 feet long and 200 feet wide - essentially a hollow rectangle. Around the outside is a succession of interconnected rooms intended to be offices, while in the middle is what would have been a courtyard in an Italian plan, but is instead a breath-taking hall, 316 ft long by 116 ft wide and rising 159 ft. Two levels of open arcaded galleries serve as corridors to the offices. Despite its traditionalism, the plan is innovative in that no doors separate the offices from the "Great Hall" or each other, and the flow of air into the building creates a continuous exchange of fresh air throughout the building. The interior court roof, fenestration, and the central space act as a chimney to exhaust unwanted heat. By its shear height it automatically draws air from the perimeter of the building through clerestory windows, which once opened by a mechanical system. Meigs used advanced techniques in the construction of the roof. Above the Great Hall the tall, central gable roof is flanked by two lower gable roofs and supported by trusses of wrought iron and steel. It was originally composed of terra cotta tiles and terne-coated stainless steel painted the color of oxidized copper. Although Meigs took great care in designing and constructing the roof and making it fireproof, it was never fully waterproof which led to damage of pension documents. Two chimneys appear on the southwest portion of the building, one large and one small. The latter serves the fireplace in the second floor Pension Commissioner's Suite which, painted in 1885, is the only original decorated ceiling to have survived. Meigs used as his model for the lower exterior facades the Palazzo Farenese in Rome by Antonio da Sangalo and Michelangelo. The exterior walls are of load-bearing brick masonry construction, 75 ft. high and 2 ft. 4 in. thick. They are composed of common brick faced with pressed brick, decorative brick, and ornamental terra cotta. This was an early use of ornamental terra cotta which was a less expensive substitute for carved stone or iron. Each facade has an entrance in the center. While the north and south facades have 27 window bays, the east and west have 13. The facades which vary on each level are characterized by pedimented windows, richly ornamented in decorative brick and terra cotta, and separated by belt courses. Another important characteristic is the Italian Renaissance style cornice which closely imitates the design of the Palazzo Farnese, however somewhat modified to introduce a military theme. The entrances to the facades which Meigs called gateways or gates are defined by projecting brick archways and are distinguished from each other, in the main frieze by the military unit of Civil War soldiers and sailors that is featured above each: the Gate of the Quartermaster on the west, the Gate of the Infantry on the south, the Naval Gate on the east, and the Gate of the Invalids on the north. The facade and terra cotta frieze that encircle the building have been cleaned and restored. The Great Hall, the most important feature of the building, is divided into 3 courts by two screens of 4 colossal Corinthian columns which support the central roof. Each column rises 75 ft., is constructed of 70,000 bricks, rests on a base 8 ft. in diameter, and is crowned with a molded plaster capital and an abacus of cast iron weighing 3200 pounds. Not until 1895 were the columns painted to resemble Siena marble, and then repainted solid rose after 1926. In 1984 finally the columns were re-marbleized. The focal point of the hall is the large circular fountain, 28 ft. in diameter, located in the center. It has been completely restored with a new pumping mechanism and simple jet. Lining the Great Hall are a series of brick arches that spring from 72 cast-iron Ionic columns on the second floor. A five foot wide balcony of wrought iron provides access to rooms on the fourth floor. There are four main stairways centrally located on each side of the building near entrances and which extend from the first to the third floors. These brick steps have unusually deep treads and shallow risers. Due to Meigs' inability to obtain funds the Pension Building has no elevator. In the cornice of the center bay there are 244 niches of 2 1/2 feet high containing life-size busts representing eight prototypical Americans of the building world which were cast in plaster and then hoisted 118 feet to where they are now. In spite of the modest budget to date, the renovation has been a dramatic success. The first phase of the renovation of the Great Hall to its original splendor was completed in early 1985. The roof has been replaced and the interior painted the delicate sky blue favored by Meigs. The facade and the terra cotta frieze that encircle the building have been cleaned and restored. In February 1991 funds were approved by GSA for the research and conservation of the Casper Buberl painted terra cotta panels located in the stairwells of the building at a cost of $700.

U.S. Pension Building, Washington, DC

The Pension Building originally was constructed to serve the needs of the Pension Bureau and has remained a government office building to the present day. General Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster of the U.S. Army, was instructed to find a site and construct a fireproof building on a very tight budget. Meigs, a graduate of West Point in engineering, served as architect and engineer for the project. Designed in 1881 it was intended to house the 1600 clerks who were needed to process the pensions of veterans of the Civil War of 20 or so years previously. He saw the building as a monument to those who had survived the war and those who had not. Around the perimeter of the building between the 1st and 2nd floors, he commemorated them in a 1200 foot buff terra cotta frieze moulded by Casper Burberl depicting the army and navy of the Union.

Ground was broken for the building in 1882 and the building was first occupied in 1884, however it was not completed until 1887. When the Pension Bureau became part of the Veteran's Administration, the building became occupied in 1926 by the General Accounting Office until 1950 when it built its new location across G Street. The next tenant was the Civil Service Commission until it moved to a new location in 1963. From 1972 to 1978 the Superior Court of the District of Columbia occupied the building while its new quarters were being constructed nearby. After 1950 the building began to be considered obsolete, and the option of demolition was contemplated. In 1967 GSA commissioned Chloethiel Woodard Smith and Associates to prepare a study of the building. The resulting document, entitled "A Building in Search of a Client," recommended retention and rehabilitation as a museum for the building arts. The Pension Building was designated by an act of Congress in 1980 as the site of the new museum to celebrate American achievements in the building arts, The National Building Museum. This established a public-private partnership between GSA, the Department of the Interior, and the museum. Under the terms of partnership, the federal government must make the building available without charge as the museum's home, while the museum as a private foundation looks primarily to the private sector for support of its programs. The building was first listed in the National Register on March 24, 1969, but was not designated a National Landmark until February 4, 1985.

Restoration and renovation proceeded under the supervision and control of GSA. First, Cooper-Lecky Architects (1981-1983) conducted a preliminary plan and designed a replacement roof over the Great Hall. Secondly, Keyes Condon Florance (architectural firm): provided a full-scale design for the renovation and adaptive reuse of the building. In 1984 the Great Hall was redecorated to its original 19th Century appearance in time for the 1985 inaugural ball. Later phases included structural renovation of the building, with replacement and upgrading of all utilities, and provision of permanent facilities for the National Building Museum on the first two floors and general-purpose office space on the 3rd and 4th floors. Also, the 244 busts representing eight prototypical Americans of the building world were cast in plaster and then hoisted 118 ft to where they now rest in niches just under the roof. Their terra cotta originals were made by Washington sculptor Gretta Bader.

At the back of Meigs' mind was an ambition to provide Washington with an imposing ceremonial enclosure, and even before construction was completed, the Great Hall was used for the inaugural ball of the newly-elected President Grover Cleveland in 1885. The Great Hall is the most important feature of the building about which the building is organized. Up to 1909, six more extravagant balls were held: Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and William Howard Taft. The site fell out of favor until after WWII. In all, 12 inaugural balls have been held there including Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush.

The architectural style Meigs favored was Renaissance Classicism, and the Pension Building is an early example of the late 19th C. revival of that style in America. It is the perfect example of 19th Century eclecticism through its Parthenon-inspired frieze, colossal Roman columns, and factory-like roof of contemporary design. Contrary to the rich-looking classical details, he chose less expensive materials such as factory-made cast terra cotta or painted plaster on surfaces of locally bought brick. Thus, at its completion the structure cost a mere $886,614. Meigs achieved his "imposing and grandiose" building while satisfying Congress' budget constraints, however, by cutting some important corners such as an elevator.
 

Year
Start
Year
End
Description Architect
1882 1885 Original Construction Meigs, Montgomery A.
1895 New copper roof replaced original
1914 Roof replaced with charcoaled tin roof
1983 New roof of concrete tiles, stainless steel Cooper-Lecky Architects
1987 New skylights (reproductions) installed