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New Museum Boasts Grand Designs on the Past

October 28, 1985|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Imagine the majestic Lincoln Memorial . . . inside a pyramid.

If conjuring up the image is too troublesome, one can actually see the architectural plans for it that were drawn by John Russell Pope in the new National Building Museum, which opened Thursday in Washington.

This opening of Washington's 70th museum draws the once culture-poor capital to within two museums of national leader New York. Housed in the grand old Pension Building--an exhibit itself--it is the only museum devoted exclusively to past and present accomplishments in American building and design.

Of Special Interest

The National Building Museum is not the kind of attraction that will draw families in droves away from the nifty Air and Space Museum. But it is apparently of great importance and interest to those in building and architecture circles, whose work mostly has been stashed away in relatives' attics, if at all.

"We received a check for $20 marked 'For Our Showcase' from two electrical workers in Florida," said museum director Bates Lowry, who arrived at his position after hopscotching the art world. Lowry has taught at four universities, including UC Riverside from 1954 to 1957, and was chairman of the arts department of three schools, including Pomona College from 1958 to 1962.

Lowry and others have arduously steered the project through what Lowry calls "tricky waters" since Congress passed a law mandating its existence in 1980.

The blessing and the burden of the museum has been the Pension Building itself, a gargantuan, 100-year-old brick structure whose courtyard interior could house a football field . . . if not for the eight largest Corinthian columns in the world perched inside, holding up the once leaky roof 75 feet above.

The building, designed by Gen. Montgomery C. Meigs, housed pension clerks until 1926, the General Accounting Office until 1950, the Civil Service Commission until 1963 and even the city courts.

Empty Most of Time

Ten innaugural balls have been held there, dating back to Grover Cleveland's in 1885, and this year one for Ronald Reagan was held there. But in recent years it mostly has stood empty, ever dodging the wrecking ball.

Congress appropriated $25 million for a complete renovation, which is scheduled to be done in 1988, once again opening the upper floors for offices for federal employees.

Even to the untrained eye, the interior of the building is quite a spectacle. A fountain gurgles in the middle of the courtyard, surrounded by two tiers of archways. The columns are 25 feet around and the freshly painted colors are pinks, beiges and even pale greens. Way up next to the ceiling, where no one can see really them, are 244 busts of important Americans in the building field.

The museum opened with four exhibits, including the permanent "An Architectural Wonder: The U.S. Pension Building." The exhibit was gleaned from more than 13,000 memos, letters, bills and bids collected by Meigs, and includes photographs and drawings.

Another exhibit, "Building a National Image: Architectural Drawings for the American Democracy, 1789-1912," includes early designs for the White House, Capitol, Library of Congress and many other buildings. Many of the rare drawings are on exhibit for the first time.

A bit more glitzy are the exhibits on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, shown with several large models, and "America's Master Metalsmith: Samuel B. Yellin, 1885-1940," which contains several samples of fancy metalwork, from stair railings to a bank teller's grill.

While Congress has made the building available as well as funds for its restoration, the exhibits are paid for by United Technologies Corp.

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