Tag Archive | National Building Museum

More Americana in the US Capital: National Building Museum and Supreme Court

Wednesday, Mar 15, 2017: Washington

(A Day for More Americana)

            Breakfast at Heather’s place was far more elaborate this morning. In addition to toast with butter and jam, she had a spicy coconut-coriander chutney as well as cold cuts such as ham and turkey. She encouraged us to make ourselves sandwiches as she prepared her son, Jeremy, for school. As soon as we showered and dressed, we were leaving to drop Jeremy off at school before climbing back into Heather’s car to ride back to Washington DC with her and Maria. As they did yesterday, today too, they dropped us at Farragut West metro station. We rode the train to a stop called the Judiciary from where the National Building Museum was right opposite. This was a place neither one of us had seen before but the description in the guide books was rather enticing and since architecture is an art form for which I have developed a grand passion, I was keen to explore this museum.

Exploring the National Building Museum:

This museum is not part of the Smithsonian—which is the umbrella organization that runs the main museums on The Mall. Hence, there is an entry fee for this museum ($10) which includes a guided tour which is given twice a day. We decided to take the one beginning at 11.30 am. Meanwhile, with about an hour to kill, we roamed through the exhibits on the ground floor and were fully enchanted.

A word about the building: Built in the 1880s as the Pension Building, the National Building Museum might be familiar to Americana buffs as it is the venue of the Presidential Inauguration Ball that takes place every four years when a new President is sworn in.  You can, therefore, imagine that it offers space for a grand ballroom. What you might not expect to find is that the towering heights of the ceiling for the building rise to five floors that are held up by massively-thick Neo-Classical pillars that are faux-painted to resemble marble (but are actually entirely brick-clad on the inside).

We started out on our own taking a look at some of the marquettes for the national sculpture that is dotted all around the capital. I was particularly struck by a large bronze lion that watches carefully over a pair of cubs that are curled up on the other side of a small walkway. On reading the plaque, I discovered that the actual full-size sculpture is to be found across the street at the metro station. I, therefore, resolved to go out in search of it at the end of our tour.

Also amazingly, the ground floor of this building contains a most unique exhibition of model paper buildings that represent some of the world’s best-known structures. As Llew and I walked around in deep fascination, we realized that we have seen so many of these buildings in real life: from the Vatican to Fenway Ball Park in Chicago, from the Blue Mosque in Istanbul to the Burj Khalifa Building in Dubai, from the Al-Hambra in Granada to Buckingham Palace in London, from Schloss Neuschwanstein near Munich to the Cathedral of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. These little paper models were so exquisitely detailed and done so perfectly to scale that I had to take pictures of almost every one of them.

Next, we moved to an exhibit on the work of Ray Kelsey, a master sculptor who designed the various sculptural vignettes that encircle the World War II Memorial near the Reflecting Pool in front of the Washington Monument. We were able to look at the photographs he took of real male and female models who donned period costume. From the photographs, he made sketches of the sculptures and those in turn were cast in plaster and then in bronze to create the real thing.

Also quite astonishing is an exhibition on the work of Lawrence Halperin, an American architect, whose work is sprinkled all over the US and other parts of the world. He is solely responsible for the design and creation of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial off the Reflecting Pool behind the Mall. We were able to look at the detailed drawings and landscape paintings he produced as part of his design portfolio when bidding for the commissions that he was granted. I was delighted to discover that the campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz, where I have had the pleasure of spending a few weeks during past summers, was designed by Halperin. I could not wait to see the FDR Monument which we would be doing tomorrow.

Taking a Guided Tour of the National Building Museum:

The guided tour began at 11.30 am and had attracted quite a fan following. The guide was excellent. After giving us an introduction to the original use for which the building was intended—to govern pension distribution—he moved on to talk about the plaster frieze that encircles the exterior of the building. This is rather a striking feature when one enters the building and the observant visitor cannot help but notice it. We discovered that the building was the work of a late 19th century architect called Thomas Meigs who was completely inspired by a famous Italian palazzo in Rome called the Palazzo Farnese. Hence, the arched floors of the building are entirely inspired by the Palazzo Farnese, but there are some significant changes that were carried out to make the Pension Building more functional.

As we climbed higher and higher up the building, we were quite taken by the brick work in the stair wells that were pointed out to us as well as the Neo-Classical elements such as the Corinthian columns that were finished off with huge gilded plaster acanthus leaves at the top. I was also struck by scores of white plaster busts in the highest niches at the very roof line—these were modelled in the early 20th century after the original 19th century ones had disappeared. No one seems to know where they might be found. It is only on a guided tour that you can get to the highest floor from where you are parallel to the acanthus leaves of the Corinthian columns.

There was a goldmine of information that was offered quite expertly indeed to us and although it was an hour-long tour and I started wilting at the end of it, I have to admit that I learned an enormous amount and found it deeply stirring. I would most heartily recommend this museum to anyone who is looking to do something off the beaten path when visiting the capital.

Finally, on exiting the building, we made it a point to examine carefully the frieze about which we had learned so much on the tour. Also, much to our delight, I discovered that the lovely lion and lion cubs marquette that we had seen inside the museum was exposed in all its bronze glory, larger than life-size, just across the main entrance. It certainly made my day.

Lunch at Union Station:

Union Station in Washington DC is the equivalent of Grand Central Station in New York—it is the hub from which trains radiate across the length and breadth of America. Since it has, in recent years, evolved into more than just a train station, we decided to go there and take a look at its Neo-Classical architecture as well as the recent refurbishment that has turned one level into a Food Court. It would be a good place for us to get a bite to eat as we had started to feel quite ravenous.

Union Station’s interior is indeed quite astounding. The arched ceiling is divided into square blocks that are ornamented with full-blown carved flowers. I realized, in fact, that all of the underground metro stations are modelled upon this pattern—so that a uniformity of structure exists in the capital’s transportation network.

We climbed one floor up and arrived at the Food Court where we did the rounds of the entire place to decide what we would eat. Eventually, we chose a food chain that has not yet made its New York debut—called Roti, it presents Mediterranean cuisine in a cafetaria-like concept where patrons choose a base of either white or brown rice or salad greens, then choose their meat (chicken, lamb, meatballs or salmon) and finally select a variety of accompaniments or toppings such as humus, tahini, feta cheese, tabbouleh, salads made with bases of couscous and bulgar wheat, etc. and end with a salad dressing from a nice variety. The end result in a large and very substantial combination of Middle Eastern ingredients made up quite cleverly into a ‘bowl’ of food. Both Llew and I found our choices delectable. Well fortified for the next part of our day, we walked towards the US Supreme Court which we hoped to tour.

A Lecture in the US Supreme Court:

Neither Llew nor I had ever been inside the Supreme Court. On previous visits to Washington DC, we had skirted by car the grand Neo-Classical buildings that give the official part of the city—Capitol Hill–a distinctly Greco-Roman appearance. This time, we not only hoped to enter the building but to take a conducted tour that would enable us to get access to the actual Court Room in which the nine justices who comprise the Supreme Court meet and give decisions on some of the most important aspects of American policy.

It was a fifteen minute walk to the Supreme Court from Union Station and we got there at a time when most visitors have had their fill of sightseeing for the day. We entered through the Visitors Entrance, went by all the screening devices that make these buildings feel worse than airports and arrived at the ground level which is filled with glass cases holding items relating to the history of the Supreme Court. There are also detailed cases on the design and construction of the building, the choice of characters from history (that played the role of law-makers including the Prophet Mohammed whom I have seen depicted in art for the first time) as well as a large numbers of oil portraits of Supreme Court justices who have left their mark upon American legal history.

We were informed that there are no guided tours of the buildings. What visitors can participate in is a lecture that is given in the Court Room itself. As the next one was supposed to begin at 3. 30 pm, we joined it. While we waited, I perused the glass cases on the ground floor and found myself quite fascinated by all I saw. At 3. 30, we joined the line that made its way into the Court Room.

The lecture, half an hour long, was given by a competent docent who explained the workings of the Supreme Court. We were told that nine judges work under the leadership of the Chief Justice (currently Justice John Roberts who was recently watched around the world as he administered the oath of office to new President Trump). They allot no more than half an hour for each case that they hear in what is essentially an appellate court. An attorney representing each side is given no more than five minutes to state the case. Questions are asked that pertain to the case. Papers regarding the case would have been submitted months in advance so that each judge would have had sufficient time to mull over the case. However, none of them discuss any aspect of it in advance of its appearance on the board for that day. Thus, none of the judges has any idea what a colleague on the bench thinks about it. This allows them to deliberate afresh after the initial arguments are made and then take independent decisions. The guide also explained to us the quiet and subdued décor of the room and the various motifs that make it so solemn. I found the entire experience absolutely stirring. It was awesome to me to actually be in the very court room in which some of the most significant decisions in US history (such as Roe VS Wade) have been made.

By the time the tour ended, it was about 4.00 pm and we were just in time to make our way on the metro back to Farragut West where we were to meet Heather and Maria who would be driving us back to Silver Spring.

Thai Dinner at Heather’s:

As Heather had ordered so much Thai take-out food yesterday, she urged us to return to her place and to help her finish some of it. Since we love Thai food so much, we did not need to have our arms twisted too much. Indeed, we enjoyed the delicious dishes of the previous evening which we washed down with beer and wine.

But we did not linger too long as we were ‘moving house’ again, We would be spending the next two nights with another friend in McLean, Virginia, and it was to her place that we headed as we said goodbye to Heather and thanked her, Chrys and Jeremy for a very hospitable and comfortable stay.

About an hour later, we arrived in McLean and found the sprawling home of our friend Marian Kumar who graduated from the same high school in Bombay as I did. She welcomed us in very warmly indeed and since we had already eaten dinner, she offered us drinks which we accepted as we settled down for a long chinwag as we were seeing Marian after a very long time. When we were quite done catching up, she showed us to our en suite room in her three-story home and we settled down for the night feeling quite delighted by what had been another very exciting day in Washington DC.


Until tomorrow, see ya….