I visited the National Building Museum with my sister, Heather, during her recent visit. This destination blipped my radar because I read that the museum does indoor mini-golf in the summertime with each hole designed by a different local architectural firm. That sounded like big fun, and I knew that Heather would be up for an adventure.
The National Building Museum is a private non-profit created by Congress in 1980. It is housed in the former Pensions Building, which turned out to have spectacular architecture even before we got to the exhibits. After the Civil War when pensions to soldiers, widows, and orphans were greatly expanded, a corresponding much larger number of pension workers were required to handle all the paperwork. The job of designing a new building for the workers was given to Gen. Montgomery Meigs, who had been the U.S. Army Quartermaster General. He obviously felt that the job of the quartermaster doesn’t get enough publicity because in the three foot high frieze that encircles the building on the outside, the quartermaster function figures prominently in depicting the soldiers and units of the Civil War.
I think a class in architecture might have been a very good preparation for my year in DC, but even to my untutored eye, I’m aware that many of the buildings in DC share a similar style, whereas others stick out as being very different. The Pensions building was one of those different buildings, and I believe that rather than using the more Roman-style of most of the buildings, the Pensions building was done in an Italianate style that was not universally pleasing to local residents. When asked to comment on the building, Philip Sheridan announced, “Too bad the damn thing is fireproof.”
I’m not sure what Sheridan was complaining about. The building is designed around a multi-story-high central courtyard supported by mammoth Corinthian columns. (Those are the really fancy ones- this is the one piece of architecture that I actually know.) The design accounted for the Capital’s swamp-like summer weather, so there is extensive cross ventilation between the outer windows and the inner courtyard. Cool air came in the bottom and hot air went out the top. The space is so impressive that I was not surprised to learn that it has been a popular site for Inaugural balls since Grover Cleveland in 1885.
Back to the present, Heather and I had the choice of two different mini-golf courses, so we randomly chose one and set off. We had arrived right as the museum opened, so there wasn’t time for everything to get really backed up or congested. I have certainly never been on such a creative mini-golf course, although sometimes I felt that the architects were more adept at interesting designs than at playable holes.
I was intrigued by the hole that represented a new kind of office flow. Although the design was fun, the execution was a bit odd since the track started at about waist level. I elected to use my golf club as a pool cue, and I got a hole in one. Heather’ strategy of putting was less successful on this hole. At the next hole, there was a treadmill that ran backwards underneath some cut out buildings. There also appeared to be an easier route without a treadmill, but hey, that was for babies, right? So I took a firm stroke… and ended up with my ball tossed part way back and almost inaccessible between the buildings. Guess I should have gone for the baby route.
I completely understand the theory that for holes that lie uphill it is important not to be timid, but I seem either to undershoot or to hit the ball so hard that it flies off the course. This clear Plexiglas hole was even more bewildering. From the side, it’s clear that there is an uphill ramp that leads to two funnels to take the ball back down to the level of the cup, but from the putting area, I couldn’t actually see the surface I was hitting on. Heather was much better on the firm strength holes than I was.
The one hole where my very controlled shots (might I say, general wimpiness?) was an advantage was this structure made entirely out of wood, including the polished wood underneath. Called, “Tomorrow’s Water,” it is supposed to represent the gentle flow of water as it travels from mountains to the sea. In reality, because the surface was so smooth, it was difficult to keep the ball on the track. Once the ball went onto the lower surface, it then became impossible to hit the ball hard enough to get it up into the hole without the ball shooting over the top and back off the upper structure. I managed to do the par 3, but it was a really nasty hole. Still, it was fun to do such an interesting and unusual course, so I recommend it to summer visitors to DC.
After mini-golf, Heather was determined that we should go see the Guastavino exhibit that was in the museum. The Guastavino family came over from Italy and had an extremely unusual technique for constructing arches out of tile rather than stone. The resulting arches were extremely strong, but also were lightweight and fireproof. Heather had gone on a tour of the Boston Public Library that highlighted Guastavino’s work in that building, so she shared the highlights of what she had learned. Because Guastavino was local, he did quite a bit of work on the Boston Public Library, and after the building was completed, he used the library rather like a show room. “Go into the Library, look at the following rooms, and tell me which style you’d like for your own building.”
My favorite part of the Guastavino exhibit was that a team composed of local masons plus architecture and engineering students from MIT worked together to build a half scale example of a vaulted ceiling using the Guastavino technique. There was a video that included comments and stories from many of the people who worked on the project, and one of the most memorable details for me was that sometimes when the engineers and architects would calculate a certain measurement, the masons would explain that no, the measurement needed to be adjusted. The masons were always right, which showed me that all of the classes and studying in the world can’t substitute for experience. (I think you can see the video here: http://www.nbm.org/exhibitions-collections/exhibitions/palaces-for-the-people.html)
The Building Museum also has a number of activities for younger kids, so it is family friendly. For people who are not looking for a family experience, the gift shop at the museum has been consistently rated as the best in DC, so this destination has a lot to recommend it.