The National Building Museum is unlike any of the other museums in DC. Many have visited or seen the Great Hall
in pictures. The large open space in the museum has seen many big events including inaugural balls and Washingtonian’s Best of Washington Party. However, if you head to the museum when there is no event scheduled, you won’t find traditional exhibits like you would at the Smithsonian.
The museum offers a variety of tours. For this trip, we joined a Historic Building Tour which is offered periodically throughout the day. This is a great comprehensive tour of both the building’s history and architecture.
We learned the building was constructed between 1882 and 1887 to serve as the US Pension Bureau’s headquarters and as a place for large social functions. With visiting soldiers in mind, the building was constructed to be warm and welcoming. Some of our favorite fun facts included:
- The building was constructed mainly out of brick, unlike the more expensive stone found in other DC buildings. Brick was also chosen as a fireproof material as the building would be home to many important, paper documents. Additionally, brick was a cheaper material than stone. The architect, General Montgomery C. Meigs, chose this to keep costs low for the government and the taxpayers.
- Visitors also enter the museum at ground level and are not required to climb the grand stairs found in front of many other DC buildings. This was not only meant to accommodate injured soldiers visiting the Pension Bureau that might not be able to climb stairs, but also to be less intimidating to those visiting the city. The government wanted the soldiers to feel welcomed as honored guests.
- A strip of small statues are carved into the outside of the building. They somewhat resemble the classic statues of mythological and famous heroes built into the entrances of government buildings and museums. However, the statues that line the building are not figures from ancient mythology. In fact, they are Civil War soldiers designed to pay tribute to the visiting veterans.
- The many papers documenting the soldiers were grouped together and bound with red tape. It often took a very long time to go through all of the documents and find them when needed. When the grouping containing the record was located, a pension employee would have to “cut through the red tape” to remove and verify the record, often days after it was requested. This is where we get the expression “red tape.”
Building tours and access to the Great Hall is free for all visitors. You only need to pay admission to see the special exhibits. Many of these exhibits are hands on and perfect for active little ones while others are seasonal or rotating. Check the website before you go!
There are several metro stops nearby, but Judiciary Square will drop you directly in front of the museum’s entrance.
Architecture enthusiasts, families
Tours are free, prices vary (under $10 per person) for exhibits
National Building Museum
401 F Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20001
Judiciary Square (Red)
Gallery Pl.-Chinatown (Red, Yellow, Green)