Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Terra Cotta Frieze on the National Building Museum

National Building Museum
The National Building Museum is one of Washington, D.C.’s most spectacular works of public architecture. It was built between 1882 and 1887 for three distinct purposes: to house the headquarters of the United States Pension Bureau, to provide a suitably grand space for Washington's social and political functions, and to commemorate the service of those who fought on the side of the Union during the Civil War.

In 1881 the U.S. Congress directed General Montgomery C. Meigs, Quartermaster of the US Army to design a new home for the growing Pension Bureau. The agency occupied the building from the spring of 1885 until 1926. Over the next fifty years, the building was used by various government agencies, including the General Accounting Office, the Civil Service Commission, and the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

Of the 51,135 pensioners on the rolls in 1864, more than 48,000 had served in the Civil War. By 1871, new claims and new eligibility provisions added over 250,000 new pensioners to the rolls—and the numbers kept increasing.

Not only did the Civil War greatly increase the number of pensioners, the war also created a demand for federal workers and office space to administer the pensions. This tremendous growth is what prompted Congress, in 1881, to commission the Pension Building. When it was completed, the staff included approximately 1,500 clerks and officers.

In the early 1880s, less than twenty years after the war, 890,000 pension claims had been filed on behalf of those killed or wounded in the Civil War, though not all were approved. By the time the new Pension Building was completed, there were 324,968 Civil War pensioners on the rolls.

Pensions made up nearly a third of the federal budget in the 1880s and took up much of the business of the 49th Congress (1885-1887). Forty percent of the legislation introduced in the House and 55% in the Senate consisted of special pension acts.

In 1921, just before the Pension Bureau moved out of this building, there were still a half-million Civil War pensioners on the rolls. Of this number, 218,775 were “survivors and invalids,” 102 were nurses, and 281,225 were widows and other dependents.

A 1,200-foot-long terra cotta frieze on the building’s exterior honors the Union infantry, cavalry, artillery, naval, quartermaster, and medical units that fought in the Civil War. The frieze was designed by Bohemian-born sculptor Caspar Buberl. The artist is best known for his Civil War monuments, for the terra cotta relief panels on the Garfield Memorial in Cleveland, Ohio, and the frieze on the Pension Building.

Since creating a work of sculpture of that size was well out of Meigs' budget, he had Buberl create twenty eight different scenes (totaling sixty nine feet in length), which were then mixed and slightly modified to create the continuous parade that includes over 1,300 individual figures. The twenty eight sections were modified and intermixed with the same figures are repeated eighteen times. The sculpture includes infantry, navy, artillery, cavalry and medical components as well as a good deal of the supply and quartermaster functions, since Meigs was in-charge of the latter two functions during the Civil War.

The portion of the frieze above each entrance to the building is unique: the western (5th Street NW) entry is the Gate of the Quartermaster, the southern (F Street NW) entry is the Gate of the Infantry, the eastern (4th Street NW) entry is the Naval Gate, and the northern (G Street NW) entry is the Gate of the Invalids.

Because the federal government required the Pension Bureau be located in a fireproof building to protect soldiers’ records, Meigs' had the structure made out of 15,500,000 bricks. The stairs between the first three floors of the building were designed with wide treads and low risers to accommodate disabled veterans who might require crutches.  Meigs claimed that the Pension clerks moved "over a ton of documents in the course of the working hours of the day." To distribute the volume of paperwork, he designed a metal document track on which suspended baskets of papers could be moved around using a system of pulleys. Dumbwaiters in the northwest corner of the building transported the baskets between floors

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