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The Ultimate Guide to the National Building Museum in Washington, DC

National Building Museum Guide

The National Building Museum in Washington, DC is a hidden gem that every traveler should include in their itinerary. This architectural marvel not only stands as a testament to the city’s rich history but also houses an expansive collection of exhibits dedicated to the art of building design and construction. From the awe-inspiring Great Hall to the interactive exhibitions, the museum provides a unique blend of learning and leisure that caters to visitors of all ages.

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the washington welcome centerExploring the National Building Museum becomes even more convenient and enjoyable with the Old Town Trolley service. Known for their friendly guides and comprehensive route, these distinctive green-and-orange trolleys offer a relaxed and informative way to navigate the city’s cultural attractions. The tour includes a stop near the National Building Museum, allowing visitors to disembark and explore at their own pace before hopping back on to continue their sightseeing journey.

History of the National Building Museum

The National Building Museum’s rich history begins with an Act of Congress in 1980 when it was created as a private nonprofit institution. The museum’s home is the former Pension Building, a brick structure completed in 1887 and designed by Montgomery C. Meigs, the U.S. Army quartermaster general. This building originally housed the United States Pension Bureau and has been the venue for several presidential inaugural balls.

Regarded as an early large-scale example of Renaissance Revival architecture, the building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985. Despite falling into a state of disrepair by the 1960s, when it was even considered for demolition, the building was saved thanks to pressure from conservationists. Architect Chloethiel Woodard Smith was commissioned to explore other possible uses for the building. Her 1967 report proposed the idea of a museum dedicated to the building arts, which led to the building’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.

During this period, the building was still in use as the local draft bureau office. However, in 1980, it was formally converted into the National Building Museum by a Congressional act. The building was officially renamed the National Building Museum in 1997.

A noteworthy annual event at the museum was the Christmas in Washington program, which was attended by the President and first lady. This tradition continued until the show’s cancellation in 2015. Today, the museum remains a testament to the art of building design and construction and an important part of the architectural heritage of Washington, DC.

Things To See Inside the National Building Museum

Architecture and Design

The National Building Museum’s interior design is a spectacle in itself with its Italian Renaissance-inspired architecture. The heart of the museum is the colossal Great Hall, boasting 75-foot-tall Corinthian columns and a 1,200-foot terra cotta frieze, making it one of the most impressive interior spaces in Washington, DC.

Permanent Exhibits

The museum houses several permanent exhibits that are sure to ignite curiosity. The Building Zone is an interactive area designed especially for children to encourage learning through hands-on play. “Cool & Collected: Recent Acquisitions” showcases diverse architectural models, drawings, and photography. “House & Home” takes visitors on a tour of changing design and technology trends in domestic life. “PLAY WORK BUILD” combines the concept of construction and play, allowing visitors to build their architectural marvels using an assortment of materials. All these exhibits offer a fascinating lens into the dynamic world of architecture, design, and construction.

Educational Programs and Special Events

Through a variety of educational programs and special events, the museum encourages a broader understanding of the role of architecture, engineering, and design in contemporary life. Visitors can attend engaging lectures, participate in hands-on demonstrations, or partake in family-friendly programs that blend education with fun.

Museum Shop

The Museum Shop is a must-visit for its curated selection of architecture-related books, unique home decor items, and educational toys. It is an ideal place for snagging a memorable and meaningful souvenir.

Facts About the National Building Museum

Facts About the Exterior Frieze

  • The exterior frieze of the National Building Museum is a remarkable feature stretching 1,200 feet long and standing 3 feet high.
  • The frieze was commissioned by Montgomery C. Meigs in 1882, who strongly believed in the transformative power of architectural design.
  • It is made of terra cotta, a material celebrated for its durability and aesthetic appeal, and was manufactured by the esteemed Boston Terra Cotta Company.
  • The design of the frieze was entrusted to Bohemian-born sculptor Casper Buberl (1834-1899), whose body of work is renowned for its detailed craftsmanship and expressive style.
  • The frieze depicts a continuous parade of Union forces in the Civil War, presenting a vivid tableau of infantry, cavalry, artillery, naval, quartermaster, and medical units. It serves as a poignant reminder of the nation’s history and the sacrifices made during that challenging era.

Facts About the Great Hall

  • The Great Hall measures 316 feet by 116 feet, making it an expansive space for exhibitions and events.
  • It is 159 feet tall at its highest point, which is approximately equivalent to a 15-story building.
  • The Great Hall features Corinthian columns, which are among the tallest interior columns in the world.
  • Each column measures 75 feet high and 8 feet in diameter, with a circumference of 25 feet.
  • Every column is built using 70,000 bricks, demonstrating the immense scale of construction.
  • In 1895, the columns were painted to resemble marble, enhancing the grandeur of the space.
  • In the year 2000, the columns were re-marbleized to reflect the original pattern, restoring the historical authenticity of the building.

What Are the Best Ways To Visit the National Building Museum?

Old Town Trolley

The Old Town Trolley in Washington, DC is one of the best ways to visit the National Building Museum. This scenic and convenient mode of transportation takes you near the museum’s doorstep, eliminating the hassle of city driving and parking. As you travel, you can enjoy the city’s historic streets and iconic landmarks. Offering hop-on, hop-off service, the Old Town Trolley allows you to explore the museum at your own pace and then easily continue your DC adventure. This flexibility, combined with the trolley’s nostalgic charm, enhances your museum visit into a memorable experience of the Nation’s Capital.


For visitors who prefer public transportation, the Washington, DC Metro is another good option to reach the National Building Museum. The Gallery Place-Chinatown station on the Red, Green, and Yellow Lines is conveniently situated just a block away from the museum.


The Washington, DC bus system provides yet another convenient and affordable way to reach the National Building Museum. The DC Circulator’s National Mall route and the Metrobus offer frequent services to the museum, making them ideal for those who want a direct and easy connection.


Do I need to purchase tickets to visit the National Building Museum?

Yes, tickets are required to view the exhibits in the National Building Museum, although visitors may enter the Great Hall and visit the museum gift shop and cafe free of charge. You have the option to purchase tickets online or upon arrival, though advanced purchase is recommended due to limited daily entry capacities. Members enjoy free admission, and there are discounts available for students, seniors, and military personnel.

Is the National Building Museum good for children?

The National Building Museum is a great destination for children. The museum has many exhibits that are specifically designed for kids, such as the PLAY WORK BUILD exhibit, which features a giant block play area, a digital interactive that allows kids to build virtual structures, and a presentation of the museum’s world-class architectural toy collection. Other exhibits that are popular with kids include the Building Zone, which is designed for kids ages two to six, and “House & Home,” which lets kids explore different types of homes from around the world.

Where is the National Building Museum located?

The National Building Museum is located at 401 F Street NW in Washington, DC, USA. It’s situated in the heart of the city, making it easily accessible from various points of interest.

How long does it take to visit the National Building Museum?

The time it takes to visit the National Building Museum can vary, but generally, you should allocate around two to three hours to fully explore the exhibits and enjoy the architectural features.

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