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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Finding Rome, in Washington, D.C.: The Pension Building

Rome is in our thoughts even when we're not in the city.  And so RST was surprised, and pleased, to come across a reference to the architecture of the Eternal City while in Washington, D.C. over the holidays.

The surprise took the form of what is now the National Building Museum (created by Congress in 1980).  It once housed the U.S. Pension Bureau, established after the Civil War to dispense pensions to the veterans (and their widows) of Union soldiers who had fought in that conflict.

The entrance is on the other side, off F Street

It's monumental in scope.  With grounds at each end, it occupies much of a city block (between F and G and 4th and 5th NW).  When completed in 1887, it was the largest brick building in the world--and controversial, too, because brick was an unlikely material for a major government building in Washington.

The designer was Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs.  Fortunately for RST, Meigs was familiar with Rome buildings and classical architecture.

Palazzo Farnese
The three-level classical facade, and the variations within it, mimic Rome's Palazzo Farnese (1550s), as does the cornice, said by some to be a "direct copy"of Michelangelo's epic cornice for the Farnese (our memory is that the Farnese cornice has a much larger overhang). And the cornice adapts the Farnese acanthus leaves/fleur-de-lis to a military motif, with cannons and bursting bombs.

Exterior frieze, Pension Building
The exterior frieze (above) was, perhaps, most directly inspired by the Greek Parthenon, but is also reminiscent of the designs on Rome's Trajan's column--depicting another epic military campaign, that one in the far flung province of Dacia (now Romania).

The Italian Renaissance Revival theme is also carried out inside, in one of the most impressive rooms ever created.  The Corinthian columns that dominate the interior, also constructed in brick, are 8 feet in diameter, 25 feet in circumference and, at 75 feet in height, are still some of the world's tallest.

The brick columns, under construction, early 1880s
The Great Hall, still used by Presidents for inaugural balls, is roughly the size of a football field: 316 feet long, 116 feet wide, 159 feet high.  Here, Meigs' inspirations were two, and both Roman: the Baths of Diocletian (298-306) and the Renaissance-era Palazzo della Cancelleria, just off Campo de' Fiori.  Although they have (apparently) nothing to do with Rome, the building's stone stairways are interesting; they were designed with low risers to accommodate injured and handicapped war veterans.

There's a charge (about $10) to get into the Building Museum, the carpeted Great Hall and some other locations in the building can be appreciated for free.


F Street side, frieze above the first floor 
The arcades of the Pension Building resemble those
in the Palazzo della Cancelleria, above.


Unknown said...

Sorry, Bill and Dianne. Just could not resist one more comment. This is a great plug for Meigs--whom Abby and I know well from our Congressional Cemetery study (much of his family buried there). Your photography really does the trick. Not all share your admiration of the building, I fear. Supposedly, General Phil Sheridan said that the only problem with the building was that it was fire-proof. One other wit called it Meigs' Great Red Barn. We agree with you, however. Rome is, indeed, very much alive in the building and, as you know, elsewhere throughout the District of Columbia.

Ron Johnson

Dianne Bennett and William Graebner said...

We really appreciate this and your other comments, Ron. Always interesting. Bill