14. The Pension Building

"When the opportunity came to Montgomery Meigs in 1881 to design a new building for the Pension Bureau, he envisioned a dramatic frieze, like the one at the Parthenon, that would encircle the building. His plans called for a 3-foot-wide frieze between the first and second floors that would be 1,200 feet long. Meigs didn't want classical or allegorical figures for the frieze. He wanted realism and he wanted every buckle, boot, wagon wheel, crutch, saber, saddle and sidearm that he had supplied to the army to be visible.

Meigs specified that the frieze be made of terra cotta and chose New York sculptor Caspar Buberl over the Boston Terra Cotta Company. He had designed another building that Buberl had worked on: the Smithsonian's new Arts and Industries Building, 1880. When Buberl suggested 300 feet of original models in repeating, sequenced panels, Meigs replied that he could afford only 30 feet of original work. They agreed on six separate groupings: infantry, cavalry, artillery, naval, medical and of course, quartermaster. The infantry is featured most prominently in the frieze, occupying almost 450 feet altogether. The infantrymen display the techniques that make Buberl's panels so compelling. While most of the men appear in profile, some look directly out at the viewer, while others are turned toward the rear." Four entrances are marked by "Gates": the south entrance, the Gate of Infantry; the north entrance, the Gate of Invalids; the east entrance, the Naval Gate and the west entrance, the Gate of the Quartermaster. "While the Pension Building was heralded as an architectural triumph upon its completion in 1887, it had its share of critics. Local wags referred to it as Meigs's 'old red barn.' A story attributed to both General William T. Sherman and General Philip Sheridan has them lodging only one complaint: 'Too bad the damn thing is fireproof.' From 1887 until 1926, while the Pension Bureau for which it was designed lodged there, the Pension Building saw the disbursement of more than $18 billion to nearly 3 million veterans and their survivors for service in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. Today the Pension Building is home to the National Building Museum."