This is one of my favorite buildings in Washington. I have to admit to a weakness for 19th-century red brick to begin with, but this is so much more.
To start with, it's one of the earliest large-scale examples of Renaissance Revival styles. And it has a unique frieze along the entire four facades depicting the various kinds of soldiers, sailors and others who had fought the Civil War. And, although it was designed as an office building for the Pension Bureau, it includes a beautiful great hall, filled with light from its ranks of windows, that has often served as a huge party space, including several Inauguration Balls.
Completed in 1887, it was designed by Gen. Montgomery Meigs, who was not an architect but a foremost civil engineer who worked on many important Corps of Engineer projects including Washington's first aqueduct. More important, he was the efficient and seemingly incorruptible Quartermaster General who kept the Union armies well-supplied throughout the war.
The frieze was sculpted by Italian artist Caspar Buberi. Because the cost would have been too great for a frieze of that length, Meigs had Buberi create 28 different panels, totaling about 69 feet in length. The panels were then used to create the entire frieze in mix-and-match fashion. The figure below was included on Meigs' insistence that there "must be a negro, a plantation slave, freed by war."
Meigs also carefully calculated air circulation, giving all offices windows both on the outside and on the court for cross-ventilation. The columns that hold up the interior are among the world's largest at 75' high and 8' in diameter.
The building passed through several government departments, notably the General Accounting Office, which was there until it moved to a new building across the street in the 1950s. It doesn't take much looking to see how much a step down in the world that move was!
By the 1960s there were plans to demolish the Pension Building, but it was saved by a coalition of preservationists, and in 1980 Congress chartered the National Building Museum as its new tenant. It would be hard to imagine a more appropriate use for it!