Editors' pick

National Building Museum

Museum
National Building Museum photo
Courtesy of National Building Museum
The Great Hall is one of Washington's most amazing architectural spaces. The galleries highlight the worlds of architecture and design.
Mon-Sat 10 am-5 pm Sun 11 am-5 pm
(NW Washington)
Judiciary Square (Red Line)
$8; $5 for ages 3 through 17, students with ID and seniors; free for children 2 and younger
202-272-2448
8/3

CityDance Ensemble

An exploration of dances from around the world in the presentation of "Dancing In One Language," presented in collaboration with Washington Performing Arts.
8/10

Summers Steps with Step Afrika!

Students perform along with Step Afrika!, the nation's leading professional touring step troupe.
7/31 - 8/30

Hill Country's Backyard Barbecue

Nothing says summer like an outdoor barbecue, which makes the thought of enjoying Hill Country's savory meats on the National Building Museum's west lawn especially tantalizing this time of year. Think smoky brisket, pork and chicken sandwiches; frosty Shiner beer; cold margaritas; and live roots music on the weekends with no admission fee.
Through 9/1

The BIG Maze

Inspired by ancient labyrinths, garden and hedge mazes from 17th and 18-century Europe and modern American corn mazes, this large-scale maze made of birch plywood features several twists and turns for visitors.
Through 12/12

Ongoing exhibits:

Learn about the history of buildings and their environmental impact
Through 4/1/15

Play Work Build

The exhibit explores the history of play through a toy collection and foam block area.
Through 5/25/15

Cool and Collected: Recent Acquisitions

New pieces in the museum's collection include a salesman's kit from the Underground Home company, pieces of terra cotta from buildings in Chicago and New York, and more.
Through 8/2/15

Designing for Disaster

An exhibition featuring objects, graphics and multimedia examines how society determines and responds to natural hazards.
Through 5/1/17

House and Home

An ongoing exhibition that explores what it means to live at home.
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Editorial Review

Step inside the National Building Museum, and you walk into one of Washington's most amazing architectural spaces. The museum is housed in a block-long red-brick building considered a marvel of 19th-century engineering. It has been the site for many inaugural balls beginning with Grover Cleveland's shindig in 1885 (two years before construction finished).

The center of the structure, which originally housed the U.S. Pension Bureau, is a light-filled Great Hall nearly as long as a football field. It features 75-foot-high Corinthian columns, among the tallest interior columns in the world. They look like marble, but actually are made of brick -- some 70,000 bricks each -- covered with a skin of plaster and paint.

In fact, the whole building is a brickmaker's dream; the Civil War architect-engineer Montgomery C. Meigs used 15.5 million bricks for the project, which he wanted to be sure was fireproof. Meigs also insisted on a generous supply of windows and an unusual ventilation system using adjustable air ducts.

The exterior of the building, whose floor plan is based on a Renaissance palace, features a 1,200-foot-long terra-cotta frieze by Bohemian-born sculptor Caspar Buberl. This three-foot-high strip of low-relief sculpture depicts a parade of Union military troops and units.

Don't let the setting distract you from the wealth of exhibits awaiting in the galleries, which are in the first- and second-floor arcades around the Great Hall.

Color-coded banners help you find your way. The museum opened in 1985 with a mandate from Congress to celebrate and encourage America's building arts, and it's the only institution of its kind in the United States.

Curators have interpreted their mission broadly. Exhibits have explored many aspects of the urban landscape, from factories and bridges to five-and-dime stores and ghettos; they've studied parks and roads; and they've looked back into history.

One permanent exhibit is about the Pension Building itself, which is owned by the General Services Administration and "rented" free to the nonprofit board that runs the museum. The museum, which attracts 200,000 visitors annually, sponsors lectures, films and other programs.

For refreshment, the Firehook Bakery and Coffee House offers drinks, sandwiches and other light fare. The museum shop, a must for architecture buffs, is one of the best places in Washington to find offbeat gifts, from cards, books and puzzles to bricks, blocks and designer teapots.

The museum is at the Judiciary Square Metro stop, just across the street from the National Police Memorial. For wheelchair access, use the entrances on Fourth or G streets.

-- C.J. Mills (Updated Feb. 23, 2012)

For Kids:

Yes, this is a museum dedicated to the building trades, and older kids interested in architecture and construction may find it interesting. But the real value here, especially for smaller kids, is the colossal scale of the interior space. It's one of the few places in Washington where kids can run around and just sort of fill up space in relative safety and calm. On the outside, there's a bit of Civil War history, in the form of a frieze depicting Union military troops. One kid-friendly permanent exhibit inside is devoted to the building of Washington, including touchable models of the Capitol, the White House and other local landmarks. However, the information provided -- including in push-button question-and-answer games -- is likely to appeal largely to the 10-and-up crowd. If you have kids of that age who are interested in building history, guided tours are offered nearly continuously. Some exhibitions, like a recent one on how bridges and trusses support things, also can be intriguing to children. Two nice touches: Firehook is a great out-of-the-way spot to grab a meal or snack, and grown-ups may enjoy the stylish (but not cheap) architectural stuff in the gift shop. In short, a visit here offers a nice side trip on days when the big-draw museums are packed or it's raining outside.

-- John Kelly and Craig Stoltz

Notes: For wheelchair access, use the entrance on Fourth and G streets. Some displays are in Braille.