Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Going Green!

Last week the Annual Solar Decathlon on the National Mall came to a close, with the innovative entry from Team Germany taking the top prize. I had a chance to pass through the competition and was very impressed with the line up of well designed "green homes." It also got me thinking about one of Washington's first "green" buildings (and my favorite place in the city, hands down) the Old US Pension Building, better known today as the National Building Museum.

Built between 1882 and 1887, the structure was designed by US Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, who was commissioned by the government to create a fireproof structure to hold the US Pension Bureau's offices and important records. Following several major city fires (The 1871 Great Chicago Fire being perhaps the most memorable), fireproofing was of utmost concern to architects and engineers in the 1880s. The use of terracotta, brick, and steel rather than wood became prevalent during the time period. At the same time, following the Industrial Revolution, many citizens and politicians became concerned about the quality of health and living in cities, and the first US "green" movement was started.

Despite it's relatively small budget, the Pension Bureau was also designed to serve as a grand space for Washington's social and political events. To achieve this Meigs modeled his building after two Roman palaces, Michaelangelo's Palazzo Farnese and Palazzo della Cancelleria, but used brick as his primary building material. To keep up the building's status Meigs used only expert brick layers and a high quality pressed red brick. The exterior frieze, which depicts Civil war soldiers, is made of inexpensive terra cotta, and other decorative elements use painted plaster on brick surfaces rather than stone or marble.

The impressive Great Hall, which has seen many a Presidential inauguration gala, mimics the courtyard of Palazzo della Cancelleria. The enormous interior space is 316 feet by 116 feet, and is 159 feet at the peak of the roof. Four colossal Corinthian columns divide the space, and are modeled after columns in Michelangelo's church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The central fountain is 28 feet across and still has its original terracotta trim.

The Great Hall served it's purpose well as a grand entertainment venue, but many of it's decorative elements also served to provide the large space with natural light and air. After connections were established between disease rates and the crowded and squalid living conditions that industry and immigration the had brought to US cities, new efforts were made to make buildings more open. The roof's system of windows, vents and open archways allowed for natural ventilation through the space and the water in the fountain kept cool air on the lower levels. Since the Great Hall is open from floor to ceiling, all offices were pushed to the perimeter and therefore had air flow from both the Hall and the exterior. The building was a model of clean, natural, healthy engineering - very "green" for it's day!

The Pension Building was used as office space by various government offices until the 1960s when it became apparent that the building was badly in need of repairs. The space was not ideal for government offices, the Great Hall was no longer needed as a natural ventilating system with the advent of central air, and this "wasted space" was filled in with drop ceilings and standard office cubicles. (The horror!) In 1969, the Pension Building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and under pressure from the preservation community who saw the beauty and ingenuity of the aging structure, the government commissioned architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith to rethink it's use. It was under her suggestion that the structure was converted into a museum for the building arts, and a 1980 Act of Congress mandated the creation of the National Building Museum as a private, non profit educational institution. The building was officially renamed in 1997, and is today a fantastic addition to the DC cultural landscape.

Source: National Building Museum Web site: http://www.nbm.org/about-us/historic-building/
Photos taken by the author

1 comment:

  1. Excellent Architectural Reporting as always, Cindy! Thanks!