Too bad there aren't many structures like the Pension Building going up these days.
Its expansive lobby leaves one breathless, diminished. The huge, towering columns and three stories of tiered balconies can't be remotely compared with the 1980s-style buildings peppering Washington's K Street-corridor.
Last week the 100-year-old Pension Building, a memorial to Civil War veterans and home of the Museum of the Building Arts, was the site of a "building fair."
Since unions have come to play a major part in the construction business, representatives of locals were at the fair, giving advice to young people who envision themselves as architects, bricklayers, plumbers, carpenters, electricians or engineers.
Metals were being soldered, walls painted, pipes fitted and bricks laid by union members against a backdrop of colorful brochures promoting ideas such as "A Career As Big As Your Ambitions."
Students, some already enrolled in vocational education, read flyers giving current pay scales for certain union apprentices, some of which are $10 an hour and higher.
Emmanuel Holmes, 14, of Sousa Junior High School in Southeast, said he was chosen to attend the fair because he is a "foreman" in his school shop class.
John Cross, a plumber's apprentice in Local 5, is the kind of man Emmanuel Holmes might one day become. As Holmes looked on, Cross executed an artful watertight seal connecting two pipes.
Despite the differences in age and experience, Holmes, Cross and many others who attended the fair were aware of the impediments to gaining membership in the locals demonstrating their crafts there.
Gary Monroe, executive director of Painters District Council 51, said competition is stiff in the painters' apprenticeship program. Out of 128 applicants last year, Monroe said, 29 were accepted as beginning apprentice. He said the current class of 60 is 44 percent black and 26 percent female.
Scraping mortar from her boots, Suzanne LeMay, an apprentice in Local 6 of the bricklayers' union, described her experience in the union as a woman in a man's job.
"I made about 10,000 phone calls, trying to get into the apprentice program," LeMay said. "Now, there are two women in the local. We're the first ones in history to work on a construction site in D.C. I know I'm a token, but I'm also a very hard worker."
LeMay acknowledges discrimination on the job, but says she believes her own behavior can help overcome it.
"People will treat you the way you ask to be treated," she said. "I'm not responsible for what other people think, like, 'this girl's out here because she wants to work with men' or 'she won't fight a war.'
"In a hard-working trade, you'll be accepted if you work hard. If you're out there not working, there will be discrimination."
Ultimately, LeMay showed a sense of humor about her position.
"Besides prostituion," she commented, "I think bricklaying is the first trade. You have to have a house."
Plumber Cathy Holroyd said she maintains a similar attitude in the face of sexual slurs from coworkers.
"I laugh it off," she said, "and laugh with them."
But Holroyd said the black men and women with whom she works react differently to discrimination.
"They ignore it," she said. "They do an about-face."
Cross was one of the few blacks leading exhibit activities at the fair. He said he hopes racial bias won't enter the picture in a professional that so far has been good to him.
"I haven't been exposed to any discrimination, but I imagine there's going to be some because there always has been," Cross said philosophically. "I hope not, because I like (plumbing) . . . We have to be bigger than that . . . We have to make that progression along with the times."
The building fair was organized by the Committee for a National Museum of the Building Arts.