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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Thing 26: The National Building Museum

I thought I was going to the National Building Museum for an exhibit on greenhouses. You know, like, the architecture of greenhouses…maybe why they grow things so well? It sounded kind of lame, actually. It turns out that the exhibit is on green houses, as in, building environmentally responsible houses with renewable resources. And that the National Building Museum is anything but lame.

The National Building Museum impresses immediately upon entry.Before seeing any exhibits at all, the building itself is a beautiful example of fine architecture and engineering. Upon entering the Great Hall, I was struck by the beauty of the wide and tall space. It is ornately decorated with golden columns, patterned windows, repeating archways, carved marble busts and a large fountain spraying water twenty feet into the air in the center of the open room. The exhibits are tucked into rooms off to the sides of the building, preserving the awesome beauty of the Great Hall. The museum is frequently rented out for stately parties and weddings, including Nancy Pelosi’s party earlier this year, which she threw to celebrate the Democrats’ retaking Congress.

As the Boyfriend, his roommate and I waited for our Some of the windows which literally tower over visitors.two other friends to show up with their young son, we spent the time constructing a large arch out of 21 padded red blocks. The arch (think the arch in St. Louis) is seven feet tall, and takes a bit of planning ahead to place the bases in the right spots, as well as at least one tall person to hold everything up until the key block is put into place. The Boyfriend and I are short, but luckily his roommate is tall and our arch was tall and sturdy. Then comes the fun of destroying it.

By then our other two friends had arrived. They have a young son not yet two years old, and this is a perfect museum for young children. In addition to the fountain to watch, the green house exhibit encourages touching, and there is a playing and learning area designed for young children called the “building zone.”

LED lights, countertops made from paper, and recycled wood.We started by going to the green house exhibit. The exhibit begins with a life-sized model home designed with recycled materials and using renewable energy and energy efficiency techniques. The chairs in the living room are made of recycled seat belts, the kitchen counters are a dense, matte black, and made of what turns out to be recycled paper. LED lights hang from the kitchen ceiling. Handsome recycled glass tiles line the bathroom floor.

Conservation hints are posted throughout the house, explaining easy ways to save water or energy. “Scrape, don’t rinse” it says above the sink, explaining that gallons of water are wasted when you rinse your plates before putting them in the dish washer. The same effect can be achieved by scraping your plates without running water.

After the sample house, we entered the portion of the exhibit showing real life examples of green houses from around the world. Housing developments, from the very expensive to the low-income variety, from around the world are profiled for their use of light and windows, solar panels, heating and cooling systems and land use.

The Colorado Court Affordable Housing Development in Santa Monica. One of ideas so simply brilliant you wonder why you didn't think of it.My favorite was the Colorado Court Affordable Housing development in Santa Monica. It’s a low income housing project that incorporates bright blue solar panels into the fa├žade in a visually pleasing manner. In addition to the aesthetics, the solar panels fulfill nearly all of the building’s electricity needs, thereby reducing the utility bills for the low income residents. It’s a beautiful, brilliant and logical way to incorporate green principles into affordable housing. I don’t know why this hasn’t caught on everywhere.

After learning about green houses (much more interesting than greenhouses), we crossed the Great Hall to spend the next hour in the “Washington: City and Symbol” exhibit. Now, just from the premise of this blog you can probably tell that I am an absolute geek about all things historic, geographic and aesthetic relating to DC. This exhibit is my equivalent of a candy store.

The first room describes the history of the city planning and all the monuments. In includes two full scale models of the National Mall – one before the land was reclaimed for national purposes and one after. The architects of the Capitol, the Jefferson Monument, the Washington Monument and the White House are profiled, their motivations and inspirations explained.

The following rooms show DC’s changing architectural landscapes. Historic shopping corridors, the architecture of the row houses on Capitol Hill, the construction of the “Federal Triangle.” How Union Station came to be – as they were transforming the Mall into a public space for the nation, they had to move the Union Pacific and B & O Railroad hubs, forming one ‘union’ station for the two.

The exhibit describes the history of segregation in public schools and department stores, and explains how the historically black shopping hubs began to decline after segregation was abolished and African Americans could shop on F Street with Whites. (No mention is made of how the historically Black shopping corridors were destroyed during the riots of ’68 and are only just now bouncing back, which I found an odd omission).

I learned that there used to be a covered market, like Eastern Market but much larger, called the Central Market, where the National Archives stand today. The market was torn down by an act of Congress during World War I while they were building the Federal Triangle, and the Archives went up in its place. The architecture of the original building was beautiful, all red brick and ornate spires, and I’m a little sad that it had to be destroyed, even if the building now houses our most important national documents.

5:00 came way too quickly, and suddenly there was a staff member telling us that the museum was closing and that we would have to leave. I wasn’t nearly done with the DC exhibit, and there was still an exhibit about rebuilding the Globe Theater in England and an exhibit of paintings and photography of cityscapes and sky lines that I really wanted to see! The National Building Museum deserves a full afternoon -- if not a whole day -- to really appreciate. I intend on going back and learning more as soon as I can.

Side Note: Some weather we're having! The wind was strong enough on Monday it actually ripped this street sign from its metal pole!

DC street signs have a way of ending up in the oddest places.


Caroline said...

Hey there! You might know about this already, but there's a book about L'Enfant that recently came out. It seems like something you'd be interested in. I've been wanting to read it myself but I'm trying really hard to limit my spending on books these days (sigh).

dc365 said...

Holy smokes! This is EXACTLY the sort of thing I'd be interested in! Thank you for bringing this to my attention, it has gone onto the list. I'll report back on it on the blog.