Built between 1882 and 1887, the Pension Building now houses the National Building Museum and is significant for both its architecture and place in the nation’s history.
The Pension Building was designed by Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs and built as a memorial for soldiers, sailors, and marines who fought in the Civil War. Their service is memorialized in the frieze that wraps around the entire building. The frieze depicts different aspects of the US military during the Civil War including images of infantrymen, calvary, the navy, and medical units. This is particularly significant because it serves as an important example of the Civil War generation creating their own memorials of the conflict.
The Pension Building was also designed with the intent to preserve historic documents. During its construction, multiple records were put in metal cases and encased in the building’s great columns. These documents included the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, typographic and battlefield maps, a facsimile of the Declaration of Independence, and other War and State Department publications. These characteristics make the Pension Building more than a building, and elevates it as a structure devoted to the memorialization of the nation’s history.
This building was also built for and served the Pension Bureau. The Pension Bureau was the first federal agency to serve veterans nationwide. This agency operated in the Pension Building for forty years, from 1885 to 1926. Veterans who had fought in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican-American War, or the Civil War received funding from the Pension Bureau. During their time in at 401 F St NW, the agency provided around $8.3 billion to over 2 million veterans and their families.
In addition to its connection to the Pension Bureau, the Pension Building hosted multiple inaugural balls for US presidents, including Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Richard Nixon.
The Pension Building is part of the ensemble of buildings on Judiciary Square and is architecturally significant as an early example of the Italian Renaissance style revival in the United States. The building's architect, Montgomery Meigs, was heavily influenced by Renaissance buildings in Rome, Italy and modeled his designs on them. Its interior contains a huge, covered central atrium courtyard which rises to the top of the roof. The interior space is also grand and dramatic. In 1900, the McMillan Commission noted the Pension Building's unique departure from the Greek revival designs dominating other federal buildings in the capitol. Its red brick and terra cotta facade sets the Pension Building apart from other federal buildings in the city. During the early years of its existence, the Pension Building's design was heavily criticized for this and in 1935, a plan to remodel the building was introduced; however, it never took off, and the Pension Building remains as one of the last few examples of the Renaissance revival from its time.
DC Inventory: November 8, 1964 (Joint Committee on Landmarks)
National Register: March 24, 1969
National Historic Landmark: February 4, 1985