Architecture doesn’t easily lend itself to enshrinement in a museum like portraits or sculptures, but the National Building Museum meets the challenge in a surprising way.
Instead presenting an array of architectural styles and techniques as soon as you enter, the National Building Museum offers you — space. Lots of space.
The museum’s double front doors usher you immediately into the Great Hall — a vast, three-story plaza bracketed by matching sets of Corinthian columns that houses the reception area. A sense of awe settles on your skin as you enter this quiet, cathedrallike central atrium.
But despite its apparent grandeur, the building is decidedly practical and economical: The columns are made of plaster, not marble; and the room’s gold accents are painted rather than plated.
Arches line the walls of the three-story Great Hall, concealing a variety of spaces for exhibits and activities.
A current exhibit, “Cool & Collected” features pieces of dismembered architectural ornament — an early 20th century cast-iron window hood, chunks of facades, fragments of friezes — and scaled-down models of the works of sculptor and architect Raymond Kaskey.
The exhibit also displays eye-catching shards of terra cotta from several key New York City buildings, such as the Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was gunned down in 1965 and Broadway’s Helen Hayes theater, which was razed in 1982.
Another exhibit — “House and Home” — celebrates the American home with a collage of photographs representing a variety of living spaces, from kitschy 1950s trailer parks to institutions like the Hearst Castle and Manzanar, one of the 10 camps where Japanese-American citizens were interned during World War II.
Another collage provides an intimate glimpse into the domestic lives of present-day Americans and our forebears, like a braces-clad teen who perches on a countertop and presses her ear to a rotary phone.
Relics of middle-class American domesticity occupy most of an adjoining room. A 1920s clothes wringer, a hulking 1980s clock radio, and a huge collection of home appliances through the ages become touchstones for nostalgia.
Like the grand yet economically constructed museum building, the exhibit marries beauty and practicality. It celebrates things that make life easier to manage, and delights in items that function, while acknowledging their status as visually interesting objects.
The building itself, however, remains the main attraction — most frequently used as a place of quiet reprieve for the hot, tired, and handicapped.
“I love the building, and I consider it a healthy building,” says museum docent Dan Kulund, a physician. “It’s one of the first buildings that was consciously created to be healthy and to be accessible for disabled people.
“The time it was built was a time of tuberculosis pandemic, and most of the federal offices were stacked and small and cramped, dark and dank and moldy and mildewy, and General Meigs, who was the man behind this building, he decided he wanted a building that had fresh air, and so he came up with some ingenious moves, like with this big atrium It actually changed all the air in here in 2 1/2 minutes, whereas most buildings needed 17 minutes.”
On a recent visit, several nannies lounged comfortably on the plush-carpeted floor of the Great Hall as they supervised flocks of children. Others seemed to be there just to sit for a while and enjoy the crisp air.