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After 25 Years, Building Museum Is a Pillar of the Community

Museum Director Chase Rynd says he wants
Museum Director Chase Rynd says he wants "to seriously emphasize the word 'national' in our name." (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Pos)

Rynd also intends to reduce the number of exhibitions to about four per year, down from a dozen or so during the Jones era. This change probably augurs well for the overall quality of exhibitions, but it could decrease flexibility.

Topical relevance has been one of the museum's valuable attributes. For instance, in early 2004 the museum mounted a show titled "D.C. Builds: The Anacostia Waterfront." Showing many signs of having been put together in haste, the exhibition was definitely flawed. All the same, by focusing on a major local planning initiative, it was extremely valuable.

Of course, there are other ways to have immediate impact. Within months of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the building museum sponsored a series of lectures and symposiums called "Building in the Aftermath."

It is hard to imagine another institution that could have initiated such an important discussion so quickly. A similar series, focused on Hurricane Katrina, is in the works.

Hardly a day goes by, in fact, that the museum does not have something going on -- family festivals, noon and evening lectures, films, symposiums, tours.

In addition, the museum is home to innovative educational programs for the area's schoolchildren. In fiscal year 2004 nearly 19,500 kids participated.

Edmund Worthy, vice president for education, has a right to brag. "Our youth programming is even stronger than what we do for adults," he says. "The museum has developed an amazingly strong and broad array of activities that teach young people about design, about the built environment." Some of these programs are being packaged for national distribution.

Improvements can certainly be made. Maintaining a steady stream of donations remains a challenge for an institution whose annual operating budget exceeds $7 million -- and should be higher. (Fortunately, the General Services Administration, a federal agency, takes care of the building itself.) Other needs? The museum lacks a proper auditorium. It has to get more serious about scholarship and publishing. It desperately needs more equipment and people to become a leader in the electronic age.

On the other hand, the "building building," as it was called by several of its founders 25 years ago, has come a long way.

The big old brick pile just north of Judiciary Square was designed by Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs in the 1880s as an office dispensing pensions to Civil War veterans. For much of the 20th century, the monumental Great Hall was almost comically misused as ordinary government office space. Rats, of course, loved the protection offered by the temporary wooden floor.

Yet today the building can proudly -- and correctly -- claim to be the one indispensable stop in Washington for anyone interested in all, or even just some of, "the building arts."

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