As regular readers will be aware, over the last decade or so my work on Irish pension files from the American Civil War has driven much of the content on this site. Today, those files are gathered together and protected by the National Archives, stored within the “stacks” of the NARA building on Pennsylvania Avenue. But back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when most of the Irish files were active and in use, they had a different home- The Pension Building. This remarkable structure still survives today. It is located at 401 F Street NW in Washington D.C., where it is now houses the National Building Museum. I had the opportunity to visit a number of years ago, and to take some photos of the place where so many life-altering decisions were made.

The Pension Building in Washington D.C. (Damian Shiels)

After the Civil War, as the work of the Pension Bureau grew and the number of active files exploded, it became apparent to Congress that the Bureau would need its own building. As a result, in 1881 the Quartermaster General of the United States Army, Montomgmery Meigs, was tasked with providing one. Perhaps most famous for his involvement in the development of Arlington National Cemetery, Meigs saw to it that construction on the The Pension Building began in 1882. The Bureau became active there in 1884, and Meigs had completed the project by 1887.

Montgomery C. Meigs, the man responsible for the development of The Pension Building (Library of Congress)

The building that Meigs produced was state of the art. It was designed to be fireproof and to provide a spacious environment for the Bureau staff to go about their work. All the offices were located around a massive central hall, rising over two stories. This “Great Hall” was also intended to provide a large space for major events within the city, a role it continues to perform. Among them are its occasional use as a venue for the Inaugural Balls of newly elected Presidents.

The Great Hall of The Pension Building (Damian Shiels)
The Presidential Seal on the floor of the Great Hall, put in place in advance of the Inaugural Ball held for President William McKinley in 1901 (Damian Shiels)
Presindent McKinley’s Inaugural Ball at The Pension Building in 1901 (Library of Congress)
The Great Hall as seen from the upper arcade. The doors visible along the sides housed the offices of the Pension Bureau staff (Damian Shiels)

Despite the impressive nature of the building’s interior, for me its most stunning aspect is the spectacular frieze that wraps the facade of the building, just above its ground floor windows. Designed by Caspar Buberl, the friese is three feet high and 1,200 feet long, and provides a highly visual indication of why this building came to be. The panels take for their subject the Union armed forces of the Civil War, and are designed to represent infantry, cavalry, artillery, navy, quartermaster and medical units. You can see some details of the frieze in the slideshow below.

At its heart, The Pension Building was designed to be functional. This is where the correspondence of Irish American veterans, widows and dependent mothers ended up, whether they were corresponding from Manhattan or Mayo. Many of the staff in the Bureau who handled their inquiries and their cases were themselves veterans, some disabled by their service. The design of the building attempted to accomodate that. It is most noticable in the distinctive shallow brick steps that provide access between floors, which were specifically intended to allow access by employees with reduced mobility.

The Pension Buildings shallow steps, designed to provide easier access for Bureau staff between floors, some of whom had been disabled through Civil War service (Damian Shiels)
A view of the offices and large lighting windows. During its use by the Pension Bureau, the Great Hall was also used for the storage of files and to sort mail (Damian Shiels)

On my visit to The Pension Building, I was especially struck by one particularly emotive reminder of the enormous number of people who were impacted by the work that went on there. Above the office doors there survives the original “Document Track”, a metal rail designed to carry a basket that could hold 125 pounds of paper. The Bureau staff used it to easily move the files around the building as needed. According to Montgomery Meigs, in 1887 this system could move over a ton of documents in the course of a single day. No doubt innumerable Irish American files were among those that travelled up and down this system, as the Bureau staff went about their tasks.

The Document Track at The Pension Building, designed to aid in the easy movement of large numbers of pension files and other documents (Damian Shiels)
The Document Track bends around one of the architectural features in The Pension Building (Damian Shiels)

When Irish and European widows and dependents were faced with a pension crisis in 1893 (you can read my piece about that here), they often directed their appeals directly to the Pension Commissioner. His office is the only one that has remained the same through the building’s history, retaining a number of the original architectural features that adorned his suite.

The Commissioner of Pensions in his office (Damian Shiels)
The original fireplace in the Commissioner’s office (Damian Shiels)
The decorated ceiling in the Commissioner’s Office (Damian Shiels)

The Bureau left The Pension Building in 1926, when the space was taken over by the General Accounting Office. For almost four decades it had been the heartbeat of the vast pension system, which did so much for those who had sacrificed during the conflict, and which has done so much for us as we seek to research and netter understand their lives. For those of you who have not had an opportunity to visit, I highly recommend a pilgrimage to the building once we have put the current pandemic behind us!

*Special thanks to Jackie Budell for helping to facilitate my visit to the building back in 2017, and for sharing her expertise.

** The factual information in this post has largely been derived from the excellent booklet written by Linda Brody Lyons and produced for the National Building Museum, A Handbook to the Pension Building: Home of the National Building Museum.

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