Thursday, July 8, 2010

Meigs' Old Red Barn

What possible connection could there be between two Renaissance palaces in Rome, Italy, and Meigs' Old Red Barn in Washington, DC?

They were two of the inspirations that were instrumental in the building of the barn. US Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs was given the job of architect and engineer to construct a fireproof building for the expanding US Pension Bureau. It was to serve as headquarters for the bureau and also to be a suitable space where Washington's political and social functions could be held. The construction took place between 1882 and 1887.


The Palazzo Farnese began with the design of Antonio da Sangallo the Younger in 1517, for the Farnese family, was completed to Michelangelo’s specifications in 1589, and was the inspiration for the exterior brick work. This palace is now the French Embassy in Rome, Italy.


Meigs chose to break away from the typical architecture of Washington buildings, Greco-Roman, and based his design on Italian Renaissance. This building was not to everyone's liking and some were reported as saying, "Too bad the damn thing is fireproof!"

More than 15,500,000 bricks were required to complete the Pension Bureau. This "new" building design and the color of the bricks were probably some of the reasons it was nicknamed Meigs' Old Red Barn.

Unfortunately, the building sits smack dab on the edge of the sidewalk, and you have to cross the street and walk away from the building in order to get a good look. This picture was taken from the far side of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial and the Judiciary Square Metro Station.




The frieze, sculpted by Caspar Buberl, is a parade of Union forces and medical units in the War between the States, and encircles the entire building.



The Vatican's Palazzo della Cancelleria, with its arched galleries opening to a central area, was the inspiration for the interior of the bureau.


The Grand Hall with its central fountain and its magnificent Corinthian columns towering 75 feet make it a popular destination for large gala events, including many Presidential Inaugural Balls from 1885 until the present.

From the outside people do not often realize how tall the building really is; so you do notice visitors walking in, eyes opening very wide, mouths and jaws dropping as heads tilt back to see the height of the ceiling.




Photos from a few gatherings.


The building was meticulously designed with its windows, vents and open archways so light would fill the Great Hall.


The building was used for government offices until the 1960's, and was so terribly run down that it was scheduled to be demolished. Thankfully the conservationists put pressure on Washington, and the government sought the advice of architect Chloethiel Woodard. Her suggestion was to establish a museum dedicated to the building arts. The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. It took over a decade but in 1980, by an act of Congress, the museum was created as a private, non-profit institution. Meigs' Old Red Barn officially became the National Building Museum.

It is a museum of architecture, design, engineering, construction, and urban planning. Some displays are permanent such as Washington: Symbol and City, an overview of her monuments, and neighborhoods. Of course there are many temporary exhibits, hands on displays, and the large area in the Great Hall even accomodated an Amish barn raising. On one visit I saw a miniature version of the White House (our President's home while in office). Looking through the windows you could see more of the White House than you see on the tours of the actual residence, and it was complete with furniture, electricity, thumb nail size tv's, and rose garden. This is the ultimate dream of any doll house enthusiast. Sorry, this does not come in a boxed kit sold in the museum book/gift shop.

The National Building Museum is one on my favorite places to visit when in DC. If you get hungry and you haven't finished looking around, don't worry, there is a cafe at the end of the building on the main floor where you can grab a bite to eat, sit down at a table, and enjoy the gorgeous surroundings while you renew your energy and relax your feet. For me it is always an ethereal experience.


photo credits:
2.wikipedia by jesnik
5.oops - lost credit


  1. Just wrote a comment and then it said error so don't know if you have it! This is now the third time!!!!
    Glad the building survived, it is beautiful. Diane

  2. Interesting post Mya, but then I am biased towards posts with an Italian link aren't I!

  3. " Awesome and educational. I love photo six I can just imagine what I would do sitting there at a function at night...

    They would have to throw me out! because I would still be there after the event is over starring in AWE"... It's fabulous..

    Thank you for the nice complement you left on my blog today..

  4. Fascinating--thanks for enlightening me! Hope I get there someday!


  5. We were in DC two weeks, ago how did I miss this? Thanks to you, next time I visit DC this will be my fist stop! Thanks!

  6. Mya! I'm going to a party at the National Building Museum on Thursday! I will think you!

  7. I can't believe they were going to demolish that building! How awful it would have been to destroy such a fantastic work of art.

  8. What stunning architecture. We definitely need to preserve and cherish these magnificent buildings. Thanks for the virtual tour Mya-I have learnt a lot today!

    Best wishes for a wonderful week,