BEACH at the National Building Museum. Photo: Bruce Cole

When it opened in 1887, the structure that houses the National Building Museum was the largest brick building in the world. Ringed by arcaded galleries, punctuated by seventy-five-foot-high Corinthian columns, and illuminated by tall clerestory windows, its vast Great Hall (316 by 116 feet) remains one of Washington’s wonders.

Inspired by the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, this purpose-built office building was a marvel of engineering efficiency. Designed by Montgomery Meigs, the brilliant Quartermaster General who played a key role in the Union’s victory, it was erected to house the Pension...

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