You might expect a museum about buildings to be housed in a nice one, and the National Building Museum in Washington certainly is -- so much so that the impressive but lesser-known 19th-century structure can be the highlight of a visit to Washington.
Originally the home of the U.S. Pension Bureau, the brick Italian Renaissance building is so grand that it has been the site of inaugural galas for every president since Grover Cleveland in 1885. A presidential seal in the floor is said to be the only one outside the White House.
Modeled after the Farnese Palace in Rome, the building was designed by civil engineer Montgomery Meigs, who oversaw construction of the Capitol dome and the Washington Aqueduct. On the outside, a terra cotta frieze depicting Civil War figures runs around the building's 1,200-foot perimeter. Inside, the football-field-size Great Hall rises 15 stories.
"Allegedly, you could stand the Statue of Liberty in here," says museum docent Fred North as he conducts one of the daily tours of the building. The hall's 75-foot marbleized Corinthian columns, each 25 feet around and made of 70,000 bricks, are among the world's tallest.
Iron-columned archways line each side of the Great Hall and lead to museum exhibits, such as Washington: Symbol and City, which examines the development of the district's federal core and the communities that extend beyond. Other current exhibits include Liquid Stone -- New Architecture in Concrete and Origami as Architecture, which includes not only paper art but also large plastic renderings of the Capitol and Mount Vernon.
Museum events include children's programs (kids can fly rubber-band-powered model airplanes in the Great Hall this Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m.), lectures (architect Steven Holl will discuss his science-influenced work at 6:30 p.m. March 9), and films (The Venetian Dilemma, 1 p.m. March 12, examines the burdens that tourism is placing on the sinking city of Venice).
Every Sunday at 2:30 p.m. you can test the strength and longevity of building materials, then construct your own arch and truss. A program on Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. teaches participants about five types of bridges, then lets them choose one to solve a community's transportation problems.
But even with all that the Building Museum offers, for many visitors the facility's star attraction is its setting.
"This is one of the great indoor spaces in the country, probably," says North, "and in Washington, D.C., certainly."
The National Building Museum is at 401 F St. N.W. (202-272-2448). Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday (building tours are conducted 12:30 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11:30 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, and 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. Sunday). Admission is free but a $5 donation is suggested.
Where to shop
Stop by the Building Museum's large gift shop for a souvenir -- a kit to make a 3-D model of your own home or something educational like a book on Why Buildings Stand Up or Why Buildings Fall Down. The store also has merchandise with no relevance whatsoever to construction or architecture -- such as toys, ties, T-shirts and colorful glass art objects.
For something a little more exotic, walk a few blocks to Chinatown, where you can get a small, glow-in-the dark Buddha at H&Y Travel Gift Shop (606 H St. N.W., 202-638-1681) or a 3-foot-tall Oriental vase at New Da Hsin Trading (811 Seventh St. N.W., 202-789-4020). New Da Hsin has a large selection of herbal medicines that are fun to peruse, all organized by malady and body part ("constipation," "kidney stones," "head," "brain," "stomach").
Where to eat
Fast-food and corporate chain restaurants are encroaching on the district's Chinatown, but many Asian eateries -- about 15 in all -- remain, most of which are crowded onto a single block of H Street. At the amusingly named Eat First Restaurant (609 H St. N.W., 202-289-1703), two lunch entrees can be sampled for $1.50 more than the price of one. At the Chinatown Express Restaurant (744-746 Sixth St. N.W., 202-638-0424) you can watch as noodle dough is prepared in the front window.
Dim sum -- a selection of small, tapas-like portions -- is available at several Chinatown establishments, including Lei Garden (629 H St. N.W., 202-216-9696), China Doll (627 H St. N.W., 202-289-4755), and Tony Cheng's Seafood Restaurant (617 H St. N.W., 202-371-8669).
If you're not in the mood for Asian food, you can choose from the many cuisines represented at restaurants that line several blocks of Seventh Street north of D Street, including Mexican (the upscale Andale, 401 Seventh St. N.W., 202-783-3133) and Spanish (the equally upscale Jaleo, 480 Seventh St. N.W., 202-628-7949).
The National Building Museum is one hour from Baltimore. Take the Baltimore-Washington Parkway south, then U.S. 50 west (which becomes New York Avenue in Washington). Turn left on Fifth Street N.W. to G Street -- the museum is on the left.
Metered parking is available on each side of the building, and parking facilities are at the MCI Center's Sixth Street entrance and at Seventh and H streets N.W. The Building Museum can also be reached by Metro on the red line -- the museum is across the street from the Judiciary Square stop.
For information on what to see and do in Washington, contact the Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Corp. at 202-789-7000, www.washing ton.org.