Thursday, March 20, 2014

Soaring Splendor in D.C.

On Saturday I met with a group to have a custom tour of the Building Museum in DC, originally opened as the Pension Building in 1887. It used to distribute pensions to union soldiers from the Civil War. Nothing was given to confederate soldiers but eventually a donation funding scheme was set up for them.
Before meeting inside I stopped at my favorite monument in DC, the National Law Enforcement Memorial, which has 2 lions and 2 lionesses sitting on a wall bearing names of the fallen, looking down on lion cubs.
Lions are a symbol of guardianship so these proud creatures looking down on the innocent cubs represent the dead officers who once looked over the public.
Across the road was another wonderful sculpture, this time in honor of all fire dogs in the country who work alongside their firefighter comrades.
These sculptures are at each corner of the Building Museum, originally created as bollards to block access to F Street, but it was never closed so they were placed here instead. Each piece has 6 laborers symbolizing building trades holding up a plumb bob, an ancient tool used to find the true vertical.
The Building Museum was designed by Montgomery C. Meigs to be offices and a fireproof building for the Pension Bureau. It copies the design of Antonio da Sangallo's Palazzo Farnese in Rome on the outside and the lower levels. Built largely from red brick, over 15.5 million were used, and terracotta was used on ornamental facades.

The huge pillars inside are also brick, 70000 in each pillar, and then plaster was painted in a marble pattern. Because we were on a tour we were allowed up on the 4th level, not open to the public. The views were impressive.
Because Meigs had been ordered to produce the building as cheaply as possible, the Italian design was not carried up to the roof. This was constructed in a more cost effective industrial style, but the ornate carvings of the exterior can be seen through the windows.

These giant Corinthian columns are 75ft high with 8ft diameter terracotta bases and molded plaster capitals at the top. At this height they are among the tallest classical columns in the world. I felt very tiny standing next to them, but don't think I should really have been this far away from the group. I'd left the others to walk around the balcony and get closer to the columns, and was glad I quickly grabbed these shots because within a couple of minutes a security guard on the level below me motioned that I rejoin my group.
We were led back down to the second floor and it was apparent that the tour did not include the third floor so I quickly ran out on to that balcony to shoot this eagle head. I'd noticed from above that the balustrade on this floor was decorated with large golden urns, an eagle head on each side, and I wanted to see them close up. Meigs had originally wanted these all filled with plants but permission was denied because of cost so they're now only planted for Inaugural balls.
One of the most notable elements achieved by Meigs on his design was the natural light. He was determined that daylight could be seen by all who worked in the building so all offices around the outside of the building had their own windows and the smaller rooms at the top had skylights. Large windows were incorporated into the tall roof so that the whole hall below could be lit by the outside, and as I stood and looked around, there really were very few lamps or lights on. He had also installed an innovative fresh air system into the building. Under each window in each office, 3 bricks were missing to allow the air to circulate around the building with the atrium in the middle acting as a giant flue.
Above the center court are rows of busts, 244 heads. Originally Meigs had wanted his own face cast along with his wife and family but the idea had got out of hand since so many busts were needed and it's rumored that even heads of convicts were being offered to make up the numbers. The original busts disappeared in 1923 and the heads on display now were designed by Gretta Bader in 1984, representing 8 different building trades from 1680 - 1880. To fill the spaces, the heads have been duplicated.
A corner of the ceiling in the Pension Commisioner's office, the only decorated ceiling in the building.
One of the 4 staircases, one on each wall.
This was a great tour and we were very fortunate in having such an enthusiastic docent who kept us keen throughout. What he didn't mention was that the building was used for government offices until the 1960's and then it fell into disrepair, and was considered for demolition. Thankfully conservationists rallied for its use as a museum dedicated to the building arts and the name was changed to the Building Museum. It's now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The building is the host location for the opening ceremony of the National Cherry Blossom Festival every spring and has also hosted 16 Inaugural balls since 1885, many photos can be seen here.
1901 Inaugural Ball for William McKingley.

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