Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Meigs's Red Barn

The old pension building at 440 G Street in Northwest D.C.

Built between 1882-1887, this Italian Renaissance palace was built to house the United States Pension Bureau. Maj. Gen. Montgomery Meigs had just retired from the Army when he took on building a fireproof structure to house the 1,500 federal employees. He took the Palazzo Farnese as his model for the building which would be his memorial to the soldiers and sailors of the Civil War. The war had left over 2,000,000 veterans and the Pension Bureau had grown correspondingly.  (See a 3-D model of the building here.)

The building was not universally loved. It was referred to by its critics as Meigs's Red Barn. Sherman --- or was it Sheridan? -- said that the only thing wrong with this building was that it was fireproof.

As this illustration from Laura Burd Shiavo's booklet shows, Meigs modified the Italian Renaissance scheme to reflect the military theme of his building, switching the fleur-de-lis and leafy plants with bombs and cannons.

The lion heads shown on both cornices are no longer on the cornice of the old Pension Building. The hollow terra-cotta heads filled up with water and cracked when they froze. The only remaining specimen of 400 of these lion heads is inside the building above the F Street elevator on the third floor.

The most important architectural decoration on this building is the 1,200 foot long, three-foot wide frieze that runs around the building. It features marching, riding and limping Civil War soldiers and sailors. Casper Buberl, a well known bohemian sculptor, designed 28 different terra-cotta bas-relief panels. They were repeated with some modifications around the whole frieze. This section represents the wounded soldiers and sailors, who this building was intended to serve.

Buberl's signature and the date 1886 appears between the legs of the third soldier from the left.
C. Buberl, Sculptor, 1886

The section below represents General Meigs's notion of what the Navy does. I suspect a Naval officer would not choose a rowboat to represent the Navy.

Here the horse artillery races past.

These field artillerymen are riding on a caisson.

Meigs's own Quartermaster Corps is represented by this supply wagon:

Meigs insisted that the mule driver be an African American; he wrote to Buberl, "Most of the drivers of Baggage Wagons were freedmen Blacks....By all means make the driver a Negro full blooded....I leave all the clothes to your taste, but he must be a Negro, a plantation slave, freed by the war." (See Testaments to Union.)

Where the frieze wraps around corners, a flag bearer stands at attention.

The north doorway has the head of Mars on the keystone of the arch.

Minerva occupies the keystone on the South doorway.

Inside the building surrounds a large atrium. The Great Hall measures 316 feet by 116 feet and is 159 feet high (15 stories) at its highest point. (A 360-degree view of the Great Hall is available here.)

Huge Corinthian columns made of brick and plastered to look like stone support the roof.  Each column is 75 feet high, 25 feet in circumference and required 70,000 bricks to build.

This Corinthian capital is bandaged with duct tape.

This 1883 photo shows the columns being built.

Iron truss work originally supported a heavy roof of terra-cotta tile.

These lighter, modern, concrete tiles place considerably less stress on the brick supporting walls than their terra-cotta predecessors.

The large open space has been used since the Cleveland administration for inaugural balls. Cleveland's inaugural ball took place before the building was finished; the unfinished brick columns were covered in white muslin.

The presidential seal, said to be the only presidential seal outside the White House, was added to the tiled floor for the McKinley inaugural. Today it peeks through a hole in the carpet near the information desk for the National Building Museum, the building's current occupant.

This HABS photo was taken at Ronald Reagan's 1981 inaugural.

Bill Clinton plays the sax at the National Building Museum in this photo from the Smithsonian.

The brick stairs leading to the upper levels are shallow and wide. It is often said Meigs designed them this way to make climbing easier for wounded veterans. But it turns out that this is just the way stairs were built in Italian Renaissance buildings.

Celestory windows light the atrium.

These windows in conjunction with vents -- the 3 missing bricks you can see in some of the exterior photos above -- provide for air flow through the building, as the drawing below shows. Meigs bragged that under "prime conditions" the whole volume of air in the atrium was replaced every two minutes.

The interior cornice is pierced by 234 niches containing life-sized portrait busts.

According to Schiavo, "Meigs filled some of the niches with busts of himself, his wife and historic military figures." By 1929 the busts were gone. For the Building Museum, in 1984, Greta Bader sculpted eight different busts representing the building trades -- architect, banker, builder, craftsman, developer, construction worker, landscape architect, and engineer -- which have been repeated to fill all the niches. In practice they could be busts of anyone; they are virtually indiscernible even from the fourth level balcony.

Even after the Pension Bureau left this building in 1926,the building continued to house federal bureaucrats until the 1960's when the run-down old building was considered for demolition. The property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. In 1980, Congress authorized the National Building Museum.

The building was renamed in 1997.

General Miegs calls for volunteers from the window of the upstairs offices of the Museum.

Children and adults are encouraged to play with building materials -- in this case, Legos -- on the museum carpet.

Volunteer docent and raconteur Fred North leads a fascinating free building tour.

While I was trying to take a picture of the domed ceiling of the Pension Commissioner's Suite, I accidentally took my own picture.


  1. Replies
    1. That's not Mars over the doorway it's NEPTUNE, note the dolphins in his beard

  2. Well ... I got that from the Historic American Building Survey sheet with says "Terra-cotta spandrels feature Mars and Minerva and Justice and Truth, symbolizing respectively War and Peace."
    But I may have misunderstood.

    1. Sorry if you get this multiple time, blogspot really stinks, the form silently fails with no confirmation or error, so I'm trying a different browser.

      Those surveys were done by STUDENTS for the most part, you didn't minunderstand at all, the original survey author was in error.
      What is more interesting to me is I removed this exact same keystone from a tenement building in NYC back in 1976, I know of 2-3 other identical ones on other buildings in the vicinity of that now demolished building, but finding this identical keystone on a non tenement building in another state is a real shock!
      Here's some pictures of it

    2. Last for tonight Allen! Minerva is typically always depicted with a helmet, and or an owl- check google images for Minerva and see how many depictions of her show her with that odd helmet on her head.

      I think the student who put this HABS survey report together had no clue and took a guess, either that or the architects specified a Mars and Minerva keystone and what he got was what the terra-cotta company had on hand that was close enough, either one is a possibility!

    3. Thanks Timber! This is the kind of detail I like.