Considering the fact that the National Building Museum is enormous, stretching beyond the length of a football field, you’d think it would be unmissable. But its location on the edge of the Penn Quarter places it just enough out of the way that you might not find it on your own. So here’s why you should seek it out:
The architecture. Beyond its gleaming redbrick facade is an Italian Renaissance-style courtyard that consumes nearly the entire first floor, its peaked roof enclosing the court 159 feet above your head. Eight marbleized Corinthian columns (each 8 feet wide and 75 feet tall) face each other across the court’s central fountain. All 4 floors overlook this interior, via arcaded loggias on the first 2 floors, a parapet on the 3rd, and a wrought-iron balcony on the 4th.
Architect Montgomery Meigs modeled the building after an Italian palace to create an open, airy, and healthful working environment, but also to provide the capital with a grand space for entertaining. Grover Cleveland held his inaugural ball here in 1885 before the building was even completed, and the parties have continued ever since.
The history. Built between 1882 and 1887 for the Pension Bureau, the building’s interconnecting rooms off the central court housed offices where clerks dispensed funds to wounded veterans and survivors of the American Revolution, War of 1812, Civil War, Spanish American War, and World War I. Now those offices are the galleries for exhibits on design, architecture, and urban development.
The exhibits: Families will love the variety of hands-on, building and engineering activities for kids of all ages, some programs free, some charging a fee. Temporary museum exhibits also adhere to the museum’s focus on “interpreting the history and impact of the built environment,” such as “Small Stories: At Home in a Dollhouse” (May 21, 2016-Jan. 16, 2017), which displays 12 dollhouses, each created sometime within the past 300 years, and imagines the lives of those who would have lived during the period represented by each dollhouse.
The summer installation: July to September every summer, the Great Hall of the museum turns into a special exhibit of architectural engineering that completely transforms the space. One year, the Great Hall became a beach; in 2016, the hall morphs somehow into icebergs that visitors may climb, traverse, and study.
The National Building Museum also hosts well-attended lectures, education programs, and events.
Metro: Judiciary Square on the Red Line. F St. exit.