The museum's large, open space hosts various temporary exhibits, such as an Amish barn raising, types of fencing, and green design. The museum also has an excellent bookstore.
After the Civil War, the United States Congress passed legislation that greatly extended the scope of pension coverage for veterans and for their survivors and dependents, notably their widows and orphans. This ballooned to over 1,500 the number of staff needed to implement and administer the new benefits system, and quickly required a new building from which to run it all. Meigs was chosen to design and construct the new building. He departed from the established Greco-Roman models that had been the basis of government buildings in Washington, D.C., until then and which continued after the Pension Building's completion. Meigs based his design on Italian Renaissance precedents, notably Rome's Palazzo Farnese and the Palazzo della Cancelleria.
Included in his design was a frieze sculpted by Caspar Buberl. Because a sculpture of that size was well out of Meigs's budget, he had Buberl create 28 different scenes, totaling 69 feet (21 m) in length, which were then mixed and slightly modified to create the continuous 1,200-foot (365-m) parade of over 1,300 figures. Because of the 28 sections' modification and mixture, it is only in careful examination that the frieze is seen to be the same figures repeated several times. The sculpture includes infantry, navy, artillery, cavalry, and medical components, as well as a good deal of the supply and quartermaster functions, for it was in that capacity that Meigs had served during the Civil War.
Meigs's correspondence with Buberl reveals that Meigs insisted that a black teamster, who "must be a negro, a plantation slave, freed by war", be included in the quartermaster panel. This figure was ultimately to assume a central position, over the building's west entrance.
Built before modern artificial ventilation, the building was designed to maximize air circulation: all offices not only had exterior windows, but also opened onto the court, which was designed to admit cool air at ground level and exhaust hot air at the roof. Made of brick and tile, the stairs were designed for the limitations of disabled and aging veterans, having a gradual ascent with low steps. In addition, each step slanted slightly from back to front to allow easy drainage: a flight could be washed easily by pouring water from the top.
When Philip Sheridan was asked to comment on the building, his biting reply echoed the negative sentiment of much of the Washington establishment of the day: "Too bad the damn thing is fireproof." A similar quote is also attributed to William Tecumseh Sherman, perhaps casting doubt on the truth of the Sheridan tale.
The completed building, sometimes called "Meigs Old Red Barn", required more than 15,500,000 bricks, which, according to the wit of the day, were each counted by the parsimonious Meigs.
Moynihan, Pillar of Pennsylvania Ave.; At the Pension Building, Honoring the Senator for His Vision of the City
Mar 23, 1989; Author Brendan Gill looked at Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and he looked at the great Corinthian columns of the Pension Building,...