Brick was the logical choice in building material for the National Museum: it was fireproof, economical, and versatile. Brickmaking technology had also evolved in recent years; bricks were now machine-made, which allowed for more rapid construction. Finally, a brick exterior for the building would seamlessly complement the Smithsonian Institution Building, located adjacent to the National Museum’s building site on the National Mall.

view of the pavilion roof with decorative metal details


A Striking Facade with Graceful Accents

The exterior of the AIB is much the same now as it was when originally constructed in 1879 (a one-story, brick masonry café, added in the 1880s, was removed in the 1980s to restore the building to its original design). The exterior walls are built of several types of brick, with a granite base and a rubble stone foundation. Red is the dominant color of the façade; it was architect Adolf Cluss’s preferred brick color, and matched the red sandstone on the Smithsonian Castle. The building’s facades are decorated with buff and glazed blue brick mixed with black brick to form decorative patterns. These decorative motifs occur all over the exterior – at the Rotunda, halls, ranges, towers, and pavilions. Black bricks are used in horizontal bands around the perimeter of the building. Additional ornamental touches, including the richly decorated colored brick on the chimney at the corner of the South West Pavilion, add to the AIB’s uniqueness and appeal.

Masonry firm Gleason & Himber was contracted to excavate, lay the foundation and complete the brickwork for the museum. Adolf Cluss was insistent that only the highest quality bricks should be used for the exterior “face” of the building, which led to some dispute with the contractors regarding the amount of labor involved. The work was eventually completed by both Gleason & Himber’s workers and by day laborers under the supervision of the Smithsonian’s foreman.

Elegance and Simplicity

The finished product was certainly worth the extra time and effort. An 1879 article describing the museum in The Washington Post commented, “The building is fire-proof and decorated, and not over-decorated, externally with ornamental brick-work, and a ‘master mason’ who was going through the grounds and inspecting the work one day last summer pronounced the masonry to be the best piece of work that he had ever seen.”

The brickwork is called polychrome as several colors of bricks were use including glazed blue bricks for highlighted decoration and buff yellow for decorative fields, black bricks for architectural outlines, as well as the traditional red bricks.

View of the roof, walls and chimney highlighting the various colors of brick on the building.