National Building Museum

The National Building Museum was the first museum I visited in Washington D.C. It seemed like an appropriate way to introduce myself to the city. I liked it.

I took pictures of and around the building.

The museum's major permanent exhibit on Washington has details on how things were designed and built: famous buildings, monuments, memorials, parks, roads, bridges, aqueducts, waterfronts, rail stations, and neighborhoods. It includes models of the Mall and the Capitol. Sorry, I wasn't allow to take pictures.

I found most interesting how land uses changed: e.g., the West Building in the National Gallery of Art used to be D.C.'s main rail terminus; the National Archives used to be the site of the Central Market. I also enjoyed reading about the debate over the design of the White House, and the various debates/controversies about the designs of certain memorials. (Other memorials that I read about were uncontroversial.) I was a bit surprised I didn't see much discussion about funding, whether certain initiatives are funded by the district's revenues or by the federal government. Maybe it is (or has been) generally fungible.

Over the next few days, as I showed people around D.C. I found myself telling tales of various things I learned.

The headline special exhibit was on legos! In particular, it showed models, built with legos, of famous buildings. It was neat but not as amazing as I hoped. Remarkably, many buildings were from Chicago.

One special exhibit was on a mosaic & mural designer who worked less than a century ago. I imagine there aren't many of those! (The field has practically died out.) It included an interesting essay by the artist about the different goals of a mural painter versus an easel painter.

Another special exhibit showed the results of an interesting project that brought young adults (10-17 I'd guess) to off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods and got them to explore and get the vibe.

By the way, the Turner City Collection, which is shown in the museum, is a neat way of making an annual report. Here's a description:

In 1910, Turner hired accomplished illustrator Richard W. Rummell to fashion an innovative marketing tool that would showcase the young company's success. He asked for a composite cityscape featuring all of the firm's projects to date and stipulated that at least two sides of each building be visible, preferably with the front entrance clearly evident. The realistic aerial perspective Rummell created set a precedent for all subsequent Turner City drawings, as they came to be known. Commissioned annually since then, each rendering is essentially an illustrated annual report of the major works completed by the firm during the previous year.

Six months later I returned to the museum for the Unbuilt Washington special exhibit. This fascinating exhibit showed alternative designs for monuments, buildings, streets, parks, waterfronts, etc., designs that were for one reason or another not implemented. Some weren't built because a different design was picked. Many others were simply canceled due to lack of funds, usually caused by bad timing of an economic downturn. Some unimplemented designs boggle the mind because they're so different than what was actually constructed that it's hard to imagine the alternate design in its place. Again, I wish I could've taken pictures of the design proposals. Instead I took notes.

Many federal buildings are designed by selecting the best proposal in an open competition. Many displays in the exhibit covered some of the runner-up entries, such as the runner-ups in the competition to design the capitol and the various competitions to expand it. Incidentally, though the vast majority of designs displayed in the exhibit came through a formal call-for-proposals, some did not, such as the proposal for a new White House / presidential mansion, proposed by a socialite trying to make her neighborhood the most fashionable in the city.

I learned the original Washington Monument design included a portico. A runner-up proposal included an Egyptian pyramid. I also read about the 1870s proposals for completing the then-long-unfinished monument. Almost all the designs put an extravagant, grandiose casing around it, covering it, or put giant sculptures around it. Closer to the present, I read about the 2010 competition to redesign the Washington Monument's grounds.

One of the original Lincoln Memorial proposals was a statue atop a giant ziggurat.

I read about the drama surrounding the design of both the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial (complaints that it was too similar to the Lincoln Memorial, it required chopping down cherry trees that were a gift from Japan, etc.).

I saw a runner-up design for the Library of Congress: a crazy drawing of a Victorian Gothic building. This competition, by the way, lasted a decade and a half. The jury was never happy with the proposals and kept asking for alterations or redesigns, keeping the elements of the best-of-a-bad-bunch proposals they liked and discarding the features they didn't. Can you imagine how frustrating it must've been to participate in that competition?

I saw the winning plan for the Teddy Roosevelt Memorial, a plan that was never executed. A new design was built several decades later.

One front-running design for the National Galleries of History & Art had them cover the Mall from the White House (17th Street) all the way to the Potomac, some dozen blocks over. That would've been a huge complex!

I also read about a number of other proposals that involved the Mall including these:
  • an elevated highway along the Mall
  • the Mall as a giant sculpted garden park (a la formal French parks)
  • an earlier version of the Hirshhorn Museum that crossed the Mall
  • the entire SW district as part of the Mall
  • the Mall as a Venetian canal (proposed in 1984 as part of a redesign)
Closer to home, I read about proposals in the second half of the last century to redesign Pennsylvania Avenue. Happily, the many of these that would demolish historic buildings were denied.

In recent events, I read about the National Capital's long term plans and about the current leading proposal for the (undecided) reuse of the Arts & Industries Building (currently closed for historic restoration/preservation).

In addition to all these memorials and buildings I mentioned, there were lots about other buildings, some I've heard of (and actually seen what was built) (e.g., Memorial Bridge, the National Cathedral, the Kennedy Center) and some I haven't (e.g., the Mother's Memorial). Regarding the Kennedy Center, I like the renovation proposals for stairs connecting it to the waterfront. Its current location is isolated.

Meanwhile, the special exhibit on House & Homes ranged as widely as you'd expect something with that title to do. One part showed the various building techniques for houses used at different periods. Another described impressions of what makes a house a home. A small display for kids held lincoln logs and dollhouses. One section of the exhibit explored objects that normally appeared in houses at various times over the last few centuries. Some objects are now out-of-date/unnecessary and no longer appear in homes. Another display explored the different types of housing communities; an adjacent one presented the economics of housing, including law changes that affected housing policy. This last bit isn't something one normally learns in history class.

In this exhibit, I most enjoyed the various sections that showed models, pictures, and videos of notable or iconic houses. I especially liked this feature because it let my mind wander about whether I'd enjoy living in those places. For some I said, "heck, yes!"

No comments: