The first thing you notice about the National Building Museum is the actual building, its pressed redbrick exterior and decorative terra-cotta frieze, and its size, 400 feet by 200 feet, big enough to hold a football field. Inside the impressive Great Hall is an Italian Renaissance courtyard, colossal Corinthian columns, 15-story-high ceiling, and central fountain. The 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 building 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. You can view the Great Hall and take a historic building tour for free, but 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 and change yearly. Two exhibits illustrate the museum's range of topics: “Evicted” (through May 19, 2019) offers visitors an immersive experience into the world of low-income renter eviction; and “Flickering Treasures: Rediscovering Baltimore’s Forgotten Movie Theaters” (Nov 16, 2018–mid-2019) highlights the stories of that city’s 240 theaters and its moviegoing past from 1896 to the present, exploring the theaters’ architectural, cultural, and societal significance. 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. Mid-May through mid-September, the museum partners with Hill Country Barbecue restaurant  to serve barbecue, happy hours, and live music on its west lawn Wednesdays through Fridays. The museum gift shop is an especially good one , as is the on-site eatery Firehook Bakery.