When I mentioned to some friends that I would be vacationing in Washington, D.C., most of them told me about the Smithsonian museums which offer free admissions. While I did end up visiting a few of these amazing museums, I also went to one that nobody suggested: the National Building Museum. This museum is dedicated to the interpretation of the history and impact of the built environment, and is perfect for architects, planners, landscape architects, and designers. (I knew about the museum because it helped to organize a symposium on Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. that I attended a few years ago). Here are some highlights of the museum:
The National Building Museum is housed in the former Pension Bureau building, a brick structure completed in 1887 and designed by Montgomery C. Meigs, the U.S. Army quartermaster general. It is notable for several architectural features, including the spectacular interior columns, which I could not help but marvel at upon entering the museum. The building also has a frieze, sculpted by Caspar Buberl, stretching around the exterior of the building and depicting Civil War soldiers in scenes somewhat reminiscent of those on Trajan’s Column as well as the Horsemen Frieze of the Parthenon. I learned that the building was used for federal government offices until the 1960s when it had fallen into a state of disrepair and was considered for demolition. Under pressure from conservationists, the government commissioned a report by architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith of other potential uses for the building. Her 1967 report recommended a museum dedicated to the building arts. The building was then listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. Congress created the National Building Museum as a private, non-profit institution in 1980 and the building itself was formally renamed the National Building Museum in 1997.
A number of interesting exhibits are currently on display at the museum. My favorite was House & Home which includes a wide array of photographs, objects, models, and films that takes visitors on a tour of houses both familiar and surprising, through past and present. This exhibit was thought-provoking, challenging my ideas about what a home is and what it means to be at home in America. It reminded me of the tremendous transformations in technology, laws, and consumer culture that have brought forth drastic changes in American domestic life. The exhibit features various “please-touch” walls made out of different materials used in residential construction over time, ranging from adobe bricks to Structural Insulated Panel (SIP) systems. I ended up spending a good amount of time looking at the detailed scale models of Fallingwater and Chicago’s Hancock Center. Another exhibit I particularly enjoyed was Around the World in 80 Paper Models, which consists of items like hand-drawn castles, intricate cathedrals with water-colored gardens, and micro-models smaller than a postcard. Drawing from a 4,500-piece collection recently donated to the museum, the architectural paper models represent buildings, cultures, and countries, ranging from Austria to Wales. In addition to the formal exhibitions, I also came across a 3-D model/map of Washington, D.C. Although the model was oddly displayed at a rather obscure location (a hallway), I saw it as a true gem worthy of detailed examination.
The Building Zone
As I was traveling with my family, I was very glad to see that the museum has a special area for kids called the Building Zone. The Building Zone is intended to be a hands-on introduction to the building arts designed especially for children between the ages of two and six. In this exploratory gallery, kids have the opportunity to: build a tower or brick wall, flip through an architecture picture book in the Book Nook, drive bulldozers and other construction play trucks in the Construction Zone, pretend to be a craftsperson complete with a hard hat, tool belt, and goggles, and explore the museum’s Project Playhouse, a life-size custom built “green” house. My four-year old daughter thoroughly enjoyed her time there.
The Museum Shop
This museum has a fantastic shop. I am not much of a shopper, but I was seriously tempted to make a purchase here. The Museum Shop offers books about the built environment and an array of housewares, educational toys, watches, and items for an office, all with a focus on design. Given its relatively large size and the diverse selection of design-related items in the store, I was not surprised to learn that it was previously honored as the “Best Museum Store” in the country by Niche magazine, “Best All-Around Museum Shop” in the region by The Washington Post, a “Top Shop” by the Washingtonian, and named best museum shop in D.C. by National Geographic Traveler’s blog, Intelligent Travel. For those of you who are interested in the Museum Shop, but cannot be there in person, you will be pleased to know that you can make purchases online via its website.
Unlike the Smithsonian museums which are free, the National Building Museum does charge admissions fees. However, the fees are nominal and necessary to support the exhibitions and programming. If you are a planner, architect, or landscape architect, and are visiting Washington, D.C. in the future, I highly recommend a visit to the museum.
Note: All photos by author.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the official views or positions of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.