Exactly how did the guy with the great beard and cool coat figure out how to get almost one million soldiers paid after the Civil War? He started with a building.
At its core, war has not changed and it is still very expensive. In addition to the cost of weapons, materials, food, and fuel, people rarely consider the cost of paying the soldiers who fought. Generally, if a country declares war, sends citizens to fight, and then doesn’t pay them, it doesn’t work out so well for the folks in charge. It was exactly for this reason the Colonies began talking of independence in 1763, in the years following the French and Indian War. We all know what happened next.
Congress set up pensions for soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War, and also extended benefits to widows and orphans of US soldiers. The money was to be disbursed by the state governments, rather than the federal government, as most soldiers fought in local militias. About a century after the Revolution, the United States was at war again, but this time with herself. The Civil War raged for four years, and the number of soldiers seeking pensions only increased.
When the Civil War was over, and there were hundreds of thousands of Americans claiming disability after fighting on the front lines, the United States government had to act quickly. The Pension Bureau, operating out of a wing of the Old Patent Office, was growing to meet the increasing claims, but they were running out of room. They needed a new building, and they needed one fast. Who better to call than a United States Quartermaster General, whose job was overseeing the distribution of funds and resources during the War?
Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, who maintained one of the more impressive beards of the Civil War, held fast to two things during his service: dedication to the Union, and dedication to meticulous record-keeping. A Quartermaster General’s job is not to command soldiers, but to allocate resources so soldiers can fight (and also eat, and move from one place to another, and get paid if their legs are blown off). His wartime efforts as Quartermaster General, and postbellum work in the creation of Arlington National Cemetery and the National Museum (to name a few) are indispensable to the Nation’s history.
He was also the architect of the United States’ Pension Building. Shortly after the War, Meigs took two trips to Europe, and became infatuated with the various styles of architecture seldom seen in the United States. The District of Columbia was on its way to a gilded age after the Civil War– many of the larger museums and buildings we now associate as part of the iconic District landscape were still in their planning stages. Meigs decided to break from the neoclassical and Greco/Roman-revival temples being built around town, and went with an Italian tone in the construction of the new building.
The building is a little like a piece of origami, exposing new layers of complexity with every fold. Passing by the exterior, you might notice each floor has a row of windows, and the window frames are different for each floor. Walking inside, you might notice how the steps are incredibly shallow, and pretty long. This was so that soldiers who had a leg blown off could still get to offices inside the building to claim disability. Oh, and you’ve probably noticed the eight Corinthian columns in the grand hall. Those are the largest pillars in the District. However, it’s worth noting that where most columns in the District are made of solid stone, the Pension Building’s pillars are brick, covered with a faux-marble veneer. It’s called “trompe-l’œil,” French for “trick of the eye.” Meigs knew what he was doing.
Also, rather than one central sculpture or statue to represent the Pension Bureau’s new building, Meigs hired sculptor Caspar Buberl to create a frieze to run the length of the building’s exterior, and interior. Rather than glorify the horrors of war, the scene in the frieze depicts the mechanics of battle, and the soldiers responsible for the victory of union over secession. Miegs was also adamant that the scene feature at least one black teamster in the sculpture, hammering home the reason the war was fought.
Though the building remained in use as government offices until the 1960’s, the Pension Bureau itself was later re-shaped into the Department of Veteran Affairs. Meigs’ building fell into decline through neglect and lack of funding, and was soon slated for demolition. Luckily, urban planner and architect, Chloethiel Woodard Smith was there to save the building from the wrecking ball.
The first step was to add the structure to the National Register of Historic Places, which protects the building itself. Then, she and a team of architects lobbied the hell out of Congress for funding to turn the structure into a museum dedicated to the building arts. It formally opened as the National Building Museum in 1997, and operates as such today.
The National Building Museum is more than a museum about architecture– it’s a museum that highlights the relationship human beings have with buildings. In a 2012 exhibit, Detroit is No Dry Bones, visitors gained a different view of a city so often associated with decline and decay. Not too long ago, people began sneaking into abandoned structures with their iPhones for pictures of “urban ruins” and “abandoned porn.” The problem with this Instagrammed view is how little history can be seen with one blurry photo taken on a cellphone. Camilo José Vergara takes a very different view, and shows Detroit is a living, breathing city, despite the ruins.
It’s exhibits like these that inspire more work from others. Meigs would likely have approved of the new exhibits in the halls of the former Pension Bureau. It’s likely he would ask if they’re running over-budget, but he’d still approve.