Imagining the future in 1880

He set out to design the modern office building, but instead he invented the shopping mall.

Few people who visit this building understand just how well it combines the visionary and the preposterous. It used to be the headquarters of the Pension Bureau, which oversaw the benefits paid to Civil War veterans and their families. Today it’s the National Building Museum. More than two million men served in the Union Army during the Civil War: as time passed more and more of these men were entitled to a pension, and benefits that accrued to their wives, widows and children. Administering these pensions was a huge job. In the past, the US had done it very poorly.

Record keeping is a technology requiring physical/intellectual innovations like social security numbers, or the vertical file cabinet, that we take for granted. The modern file cabinet, now slowly vanishing in favor of digital files, was invented in 1898, by Edward Siebels. The Pension Building was finished in 1887, eleven years earlier. It shows us a society trying to figure out what the physical space of modern bureaucratized public life would look like. How do you organize information about millions of people? How do you store and retrieve more than a million specific records? How do you physically shelter the workers needed to process that material, and allow them to do it in a timely, methodical fashion? Pensions to Civil War veterans represented a sacred obligation of the nation towards the citizens who served it. Should a building devoted to that task be a grand memorial, or an inexpensive, utilitarian warehouse?

The task fell to Montgomery Meigs, an innovative architect who had served with great distinction as Quartermaster General of the Union Army. Meigs designed the graceful Cabin John Bridge; it’s Meigs who oversaw the raising of the Capitol dome. Meigs turned Robert E. Lee’s family home, Arlington house, into a national cemetery: among its first occupants was Meigs’ son, who died in the war. Meigs was asked to design an efficient office building that would also serve as a grand ceremonial/memorial space, something Washington lacked. The design he came up with is still pretty stunning. Meigs created a vast ceremonial atrium with all the offices lining the sides. The offices were built on an open plan, with no doors between them. He designed a ventilation system based on convection, and enough windows so that the offices and atrium could depend on natural light. He made staircases that were unusually wide and shallow, to accomodate disabled veterans. He also included an interoffice mail delivery system for each floor in which papers were put in a basket, suspended on wheels from a rail. When they finished their tasks, workers would give the basket a push, and it would roll along the wall to the next office. You can still see the rail on the third floor. The building is traditional, in that it’s apparently based on the Palazzo Farenese in Rome. But it’s “modern” in that it’s built of an astonishing quantity of red bricks, and has a roof of iron trusses. A cast terracotta frieze runs along the outside of the building, made of 28 prefab sections, carefully arranged to avoid repetition. Meigs put a wagon from the quartermaster’s division, of which he had been the head, front and center, and insisted on including and African American as driver.


Architectural details include, running along the top of the third floor, cannons and exploding bombs. The vast Corinthian columns in the atrium are also made of brick, hollow, and finished and painted to resemble marble.


At the same time, Meigs design included many elements we would call bizarre. For example, the 243 busts which Meigs oredered installed at the very top. Although these are more or less indistinguishable from the ground: Meigs initially asked for busts cast from the Smithsonian’s collection of  “ethnological heads, savage and civilized” along with busts of himself, his wife, his father and a now mostly forgotten Senator from Louisiana. Some of the ethonlogical busts came from casts of federal prisoners and children from the Hampton Indian school. Meigs ordered records of the busts sealed in metal boxes and placed in the niches with the busts. They were all removed at some point in the early 20th century. In 1984 the niches were filled with new heads representing “the building trades.”

Meigs also apparently placed an eccentric and odd set of documents inside at least 20 of the columns: these included “plans and drawings of the Pension Building, a copy of the U.S. Constitution, copper plates bearing the signatures of the president and other government officials, War Department records, Treasury Department documents, 1883 maps and coastal charts of the U.S., rare coins, and government publications.” The columns would be “interesting to the historians or the antiquarians of the age when the ruins of this building . . . shall be opened to the curious.” There’s supposed to be so,e Masonic hoodoo in the columns as well. Docents today will show you one column where, in 1995, an endoscope was inserted to investigate the interior, which seemed to consist mostly of old newspapers. None of the other columns have been similarly examined.

The combination of efficiency, rationality, patriotic grandeur, vanity and whimsy makes the pension building a perfect artifact of the 1880s. It’s based on the Palazzo Farnese, but typical of Americans in the gilded age, it’s blown up to gargantuan proportions; at its completion “the world’s largest brick structure,” possessing “the worlds’ largest Corinthian columns.” The columns are vast but fake, painted to look like marble. The emphasis on natural light is delightful, but the light itself is insufficient and supplemented by electrical bulbs. Beneath each window, Meigs included brick-sized openings to draw in fresh air. As heat in the building rose, it could be released by opening windows at roof level, drawing on cool fresh air. The result, apparently, was to make the building drafty and cold in the winter, and the heating system no longer functions. The document track never caught on. Contemporaries seem to have dislikes the building, which they referred to as “Meigs’ red barn.”

As a museum, the space is spectacular, but the exhibits are kind of hit or miss. They rarely make use of the grand space, and instead are mostly confined to the rooms around the first floor. It has an excellent gift shop. I once saw a display put on their by people who make rubber band powered paper airplanes. The sight of these silent paper creations soaring gracefully around the atrium was delightful.  But it’s extremely common to find that the atrium is beng closed for some kind of fancy corporate evening reception. I’ve played gigs there–it’s maybe the worst acoustic space in DC, with reverb that lasts for minutes at a time.

But Meigs  deserves all credit for boldly imagining the future, and for trying to marry a bureaucratic function to the grandeur of the Republic itself. Modern office buildings generally don’t look like the Pension Building: in that sense it’s a failed model. But the Pension building instantly recalls that other icon tof the 20th centry, the shopping mall, with its central atrium. Meigs invented a different future than the future he imagined.

One Comment

  • […] and retrieval that makes pos­si­ble larger sys­tems of man­age­ment. If you go to the Build­ing Museum in DC, you can see how some­one tried to man­age mil­lions of pen­sion records before the inven­tion of the ver­ti­cal fil­ing cab­i­net. It’s a not quite mod­ern […]

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