Streets of Washington, written by John DeFerrari, covers some of DC’s most interesting buildings and history. John is the author of Historic Restaurants of Washington, D.C.: Capital Eats, published by the History Press, Inc. and also the author of Lost Washington DC.
Just east of the hustle and bustle of Chinatown and the Verizon Center stands a great Italian Renaissance Revival pile of pressed red brick known as the Pension Building, home to the National Building Museum. The building is one of the city’s best venues for large events and has hosted inaugural balls for presidents going back to Grover Cleveland’s in 1885, before it was even finished. It’s dramatic, historic, and treasured now, but like many architectural landmarks it is ultimately a rather odd building, and it’s certainly had more than its share of detractors over its lifetime.
The Pension Building today (photo by the author).
The Pension Building as it appeared in the early 1900s (author’s collection).
The building was the brainchild of Brig. Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs (1816-1892). By 1881, the brilliant, vainglorious, 65-year-old Meigs was rounding out a remarkable career of engineering accomplishments. Meigs was a man of exceptional drive, intellect, irascibility, and arrogance, who had been fascinated by engineering from an early age. When he was just six years old, his mother described him as “high-tempered, unyielding, tyrannical toward his brothers, and very persevering in pursuit of anything he wishes.” As a young man he designed Washington’s first effective water supply system, a complex reservoir and aqueduct complex that included the magnificent Cabin John Bridge in Maryland—the longest single-span masonry bridge at the time—as well as the graceful Georgetown aqueduct bridge over Rock Creek. He went on to become supervising engineer for the expansion of the U.S. Capitol, where he worked, often contentiously, with architect Thomas U. Walter to create the lavish, elegantly decorated building we know today. An accomplished logistician, he served during the Civil War as Quartermaster General of the Army and is perhaps best known as the man who decided to build a cemetery around Robert E. Lee’s mansion in Arlington so that it would never be usable again as a home.
Meigs was ready to retire in 1881 when instead he was appointed by Congress to build a large new office building to house the burgeoning U.S. Pension Bureau that was in charge of distributing pensions to Civil War veterans. Meigs chose a block-long site at the northern end of Judiciary Square where the infamous “Blue Jug”—the city’s old decrepit jail—had stood in earlier days. On this site Meigs conceived an immense modern office building that would be relatively inexpensive to construct but nevertheless elegant in decoration and far more practical than most contemporary buildings of its type. The result was a great red-brick palace, or perhaps an “old red barn,” depending on your point of view. With an eclectic mix of styles and materials, the resulting structure was as grand and impressive as it was ungainly in proportions.
Meigs had traveled to Italy and drew design inspiration from Italian Renaissance palaces for the building’s decorative style and details. But from an engineering standpoint, the old red barn reflected Meigs’ gutsy instincts. It was designed with four levels of offices and storage rooms encompassing a central Great Hall. Two levels of gracefully arched arcades line the hall and serve as corridors linking the rings of office suites. Almost every office has natural light. Ventilation was facilitated when warming air drawn in through open office windows would rise up in the Great Hall and escape through clerestory windows in cupolas crowning the building’s peaked roof. Air intakes marked by “missing” bricks on the facade beneath the windows were designed to bring in fresh air during the winter when windows would be closed. Inside, radiators under the windows would warm the air. Few other buildings of this size had such dramatic circulation patterns.
Another early 1900s view of the Pension Building (author’s collection).
All was aimed at the comfort of office workers and visitors alike (though there would be complaints of draftiness). Broad brick and masonry staircases ascending to the second floor featured unusually shallow risers, deep treads, and a slight cant, making them seem almost a pleasure to climb. Meigs was thinking of aging and disabled veterans when he designed the staircases, but their unusual design would in time give rise to speculation that they were intended to accommodate horses. It was just one of the many myths that the great building began to accumulate. Another was that a prominent Civil War general—perhaps William T. Sherman or Philip Sheridan—had voiced widespread unhappiness about the Old Red Barn’s ungainly appearance by lamenting that it was “too bad the damn thing is fireproof.”
Despite the hulking appearance and the need to economize, there were many striking decorative embellishments. Perhaps most impressive is the majestic terracotta frieze of soldiers and sailors that rings the building’s facade above the first story. Meigs commissioned Caspar Buberl (1834-1899), a prominent sculptor of the day, to create the frieze as a series of 28 panels that are repeated in varying ways to form a continuous process around the building.
Section of the frieze over the south entrance of the Pension Building (photo by the author).
Casting the frieze in terracotta was one of many measures Meigs took to save money. Another was in the way the eight enormous columns in the Great Hall were constructed and decorated. The giant 75-foot columns (Meigs had to have the largest imaginable) were constructed of brick, like the rest of the building, and crowned by molded plaster Corinthian capitals. Each column required 70,000 bricks. Though Meigs wanted to face the columns in marble, budgetary constraints resulted in a simpler plaster finish, originally whitewashed and later (1895) painted to resemble Siena marble. Other decorative details abound, including a central fountain and an array of 244 life-size busts located in niches high atop the Great Hall’s central bay. Unseen are the countless government documents that Meigs stashed away inside the hollow columns of the first and second floor arcades, which he thought “will be interesting to the historians or the antiquarians of the age when the ruins of this building…shall be opened to the curious.”
Columns in the Great Hall (photo by the author).
Construction began in late 1882 and would last five years. At a final cost of $886,000, the structure was the largest brick building in the world, comprised of over 15 million bricks. The Pension Bureau began moving into the unfinished structure in March 1885, more than two years before work was complete.
That same month Grover Cleveland’s first inaugural ball was held in the building, beginning a long tradition that continues to this day. By the mid 19th century, inaugural balls had become large, elaborate affairs, and often temporary pavilions were constructed at Judiciary Square (just south of the Pension Building) to accommodate the crowds. The construction of the Pension Building allowed organizers to finally bring these grand events indoors. For that first ball in the unfinished building, a temporary wooden roof was built over the Great Hall and a wooden floor was laid over the dirt. Endless white muslin—5,000 yards of it—were draped around the columns to make them look marble-like, and thousands of garlands were strung around the hall to create a festive effect, although not all observers were impressed. The National Republican sniffed that the garlands around the columns looked like “a whipcord placed around to hold the giants’ underwear in place.”
(from The Evening Star, March 3, 1885)
But overall, the hall’s lavish decorations prompted rave reviews. There were beautiful floral displays; endless red, white, and blue bunting; an immense 10′ by 16′ foot mirror, and of course a lavish banquet hosted by noted restaurateur “Terrapin Tom” Murray. The Evening Star was particularly impressed by the electric lights:
The new Pension building, where the inaugural ball was held, was a blaze of light last night, and the houses in the immediate vicinity were illuminated and decorated, while hundreds of carriages filled the thoroughfares, and the scene was a perfect carnival of animation, which was made all the more dazzling by the glare of the electric light that almost turned night into day…. Without the least fear of exaggeration the scene presented within the ballroom may be said to have been the most magnificent in point of dazzling brilliancy and varied richness ever witnessed in America, and doubtless will never be excelled, if, indeed, it can ever again be equaled here.”
Dancing at Benjamin Harrison’s inaugural ball in 1889 (Source: Library of Congress).
Of course, the same sorts of things were said four years later at Benjamin Harrison’s inaugural ball, which aimed for an even more lavish spectacle. The Washington Post outlined the spectacular entrance planned for the new president:
From the centre of the room in full view from the main entrance will be suspended two great balls of green and flower. As the Presidential party enters these globes will open, exposing interiors filled with the choicest and most beautiful flowers, from which will flit into the room a swarm of richly-plumed birds.
Stereoview of the decorations for McKinley’s 1897 inaugural ball (author’s collection).
Though the Pension Building itself was often derided as ugly, the inaugural balls held within its Great Hall stood every four years as pinnacles of Victorian exuberance, self-confidence, and decorative excess. Balls were held for Cleveland (1893) McKinley (1897 and 1901), Roosevelt (1905), and Taft (1909), each outdoing the last in ostentation. Woodrow Wilson finally broke the pattern (and disappointed many local businessmen) by deciding not to hold a ball for his inauguration in 1913. It would be another 60 years before inaugural balls returned to the Pension Building, with Nixon’s second inauguration, in an age of markedly different sensibilities.
The President’s Room, decorated for McKinley’s second inaugural ball in 1901 (author’s collection).
Meanwhile, when it wasn’t hosting inaugurations, the building served as the headquarters of the Pension Bureau for some 40 years. By World War I, the hulking structure began to seem spooky, especially to lonely night guards who fancied they saw ghostly figures and grimacing skulls in the wispy painted splotches and veins climbing the Great Hall’s huge columns. On a more practical level, the capacious building’s limitations, particularly for storage of records, were becoming apparent. Rows of shelves were installed in the Great Hall to hold records. After it was merged with the Veterans Administration in 1926, the Pension Bureau finally moved to the Department of Interior building, and its old offices were turned over to the recently-created General Accounting Office, which filled the space with clerks and endless files of audit records. While it took just a few days to move the Pension Bureau out, transferring all the GAO’s voluminous files into the new space took several weeks, and even at that, the auditing agency was still spread among 15 other buildings across the city.
Clerks at work in the Great Hall in 1936 (Source: Library of Congress).
Inaugural balls and other glamorous social activities were out of the question after the entire Great Hall, including the central fountain, were filled with desks, filing cabinets, and stacks of papers. The GAO lobbied for larger quarters almost as soon as it moved in, and plans were drawn up by prominent DC architect Jules Henri de Sibour (1872-1938) in 1935 to rebuild the structure, facing it in limestone and giving it a classical revival look very similar to the massive Federal Triangle office buildings then going up. The chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts praised de Sibour’s plan as a way of “transforming into a building of appropriate monumental character a building which during its entire lifetime has been ridiculed both by the public and by the architectural profession,” a structure he termed “one of the three or four eyesores of the city.” But Congress couldn’t agree on the plan, and it was never carried out.
The GAO finally got its own, much larger building in the block directly across G Street from the Pension Building in 1951, after which the Old Red Barn began a long period of decline. In the 1960s and 70s a variety of government tenants, including the Civil Service Commission, the Internal Revenue Service, and the DC Superior Court used the space intermittently, while the long tern future of the building was debated. While some consideration was given to demolishing the long-derided structure, many appreciated its unique place in DC architecture. The General Services Administration commissioned a report by distinguished DC architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith (1910-1992), who was the first to suggest that the building be converted into a museum of the building arts. It wasn’t until 1978 that Congress passed a resolution, introduced by Maryland Senator Charles McC. Matthias, calling for the building to be preserved, and two years later additional legislation established the National Building Museum as a public-private partnership with GSA, which owns the building and maintains it but does not provide support for the museum’s activities.
The Great Hall entirely filled with offices in 1967 (Source: Historic American Buildings Survey).
Restoration of the building began in earnest in the early 1980s, weathering various attempts by the Reagan administration to cut its funding. As with any project of this size, there were challenges and surprises. Everyone was sure the fountain in the center of the Great Hall had been removed to make more office space, for example, but it was found largely intact underneath wooden flooring and fully restored. The original encaustic tile floor of the Great Hall was badly damaged, but similar tile on the building’s upper floors remained and was also restored. On the outside, a badly-needed new roof was installed, and the red-brick facade, which had tuned dusky gray from decades of accumulated soot, was throughly cleaned. Inside, plaster details were restored or recreated, the mammoth columns were repainted with their faux Siena marble finish, and replacement busts were even installed in the niches at the top of the Great Hall’s central bay. The National Building Museum took up residence and opened its first public exhibition in 1985.
The Great Hall as it appears today (photo by the author).
While the museum often struggles financially, like many such private institutions, the Pension Building’s Great Hall endures as one of the city’s grandest meeting spaces and hosts countless special events, including presidential inaugural balls every four years. The building’s many eccentricities, having passed the test of time, seem safe from the scorn they once had to regularly endure.
* * * * *
Sources for this article included John Alexander, Ghosts: Washington Revisited (1998); William C. Dickinson et al., eds., Montgomery C. Meigs and the Building of the Nation’s Capital (2001); the Historic American Buildings Survey; Linda Brody Lyons, A Handbook to the Pension Building: Home of the National Building Museum (1989); Diane Maddex, Historic Buildings of Washington, D.C. (1973); the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Pension Building; Pamela Scott, Capital Engineers (2005); Pamela Scott and Antoinette Lee, Buildings of the District of Columbia (1993); Roger R. Trask, Defender of the Public Interest: the General Accounting Office, 1921-1966 (1996); and numerous newspaper articles.