The first thing you notice about the National Building Museum is the actual building, its pressed red-brick exterior and decorative terra cotta frieze, and its size, 400 feet by 200 feet, big enough to hold a football field. It costs nothing to tour the Great Hall, which impresses even more with its Italian Renaissance courtyard, colossal Corinthian columns, 15-story-high ceiling, and central fountain. This structure, modeled after an Italian palazzo, was designed to house the Pension Bureau (its offices were located in those upper arcaded areas, overlooking the atrium) and to serve as a venue for grand galas. The building hosted its first event, President Grover Cleveland’s inaugural ball, in 1885, even before construction was completed in 1887, and it’s been the site of such balls and other events ever since.
In the 1980s, the site took on a new purpose as a museum dedicated to architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, urban planning, and historic preservation and opened to the public in 1985 as the National Building Museum. The museum charges a fee to tour its exhibits, which are mounted in the galleries off the Great Hall on the first and second floors. A typical topic is the one covered in the show “Making Room: Housing for a Changing America” (Nov 18, 2017–Sept 16, 2018), which highlights innovative housing designs, as developed by architects, interior designers, and developers, partnering with housing advocates, activists and policy makers. The museum’s year-round Building Zone exhibit is a favorite for families with children ages 2 to 6, who can build a tower, drive a bulldozer, and explore a life-size playhouse.
If you’re here in summer, you’ve got to stop by to experience the super-fun, interactive “Summer Block Party” that takes over the entire expanse of the Great Hall; one year it was two 9-hole mini golf courses designed and built by area experts in the building arts; in 2017, the theme was “Hive,” its signature creation a 60-foot-tall structure of three interconnected, domed chambers, magenta-colored on the inside, silver on the exterior, all of it playing with the visitor’s perceptions of light, sound and dimension. Note: There’s a charge to visit the Summer Block Party; otherwise you can tour the Great Hall for free. The museum gift shop is an especially good one, as is the on-site eatery Firehook Bakery, a local favorite.
- Elise Hartman Ford