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Native American Museum Takes Shape on the National Mall in D.C.

Fri June 07, 2002 - Northeast Edition
Brenda Ruggiero

A very different type of building will be taking shape over the next two years on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Situated between the Air & Space Museum and the U.S. Capitol, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) will consist of a curvilinear structure covered with Kasota limestone, which is found only in Minnesota. Designed to be reminiscent of natural rock that has been sculpted over time by wind and water, the 260,000-sq.-ft. (24,154 sq m) structure will be five stories, or 99 ft. (30.1 m), high. The museum will exhibit Indian arts, histories and cultures, in addition to serving as the centerpiece venue for various ceremonies and presentations. Approximately 6 million visitors are expected annually.

Planning for the museum involved a wide cross section of Native Americans from throughout the Western Hemisphere. Representatives from the Smithsonian, NMAI, and the architecture firm of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates worked together to develop a multi-volume architectural document called The Way of the People. The group worked to establish the technical aspects of the architecture as well as a philosophical approach to the design that respects and honors cultural concerns. The facility is designed to “reflect the relationship between humankind and the rest of nature, with references to the four cardinal directions and the four elements of the world — earth, air, water and fire.”

The heart of the building will be the “Potomac,” a domed space 115 ft. (35 m) by 121 ft. (36.8 m) high. The word comes from local Native languages and means “where the goods are brought in.” An oculus in the dome will provide views of the sky and allow a natural stream of light to create a solar calendar. All other spaces will radiate from the domed space. The museum will include exhibit areas, two theaters, museum shops, a resource center, a cafe and an outdoor performance area.

The site will cover 4.25 acres (1.7 ha), and will include natural landscapes that are indigenous to the region, such as wetlands, meadowlands and a hardwood forest.

The groundbreaking ceremony was held on Sept. 28, 1999, and excavation, drainage, sheeting and shoring have been completed. The $56.7-million construction contract was awarded in July 2001 to a joint venture of the Clark Construction Group Inc. of Bethesda, MD, and Table Mountain Rancheria Enterprises (TMR) of Friant, CA. Clark Construction has 11 regional offices, and has completed several major Washington, D.C. projects, such as the Dirksen Senate Office Building and the MCI Center. TMR is a federally recognized American Indian tribe.

Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small said, “Awarding this contract signifies a major milestone for the Smithsonian and the Indian Museum. This is the final museum site on our National Mall and the National Museum of the American Indian is a most deserving recipient of this spectacular site in view of the U.S. Capitol.”

The construction contract covers the foundation, structure, and stonework. The total construction cost of the building is reported to be $199 million.

The building structure will consist of poured-in place concrete, and building materials will include American-mist granite, bronze, copper, maple, adzed cedar and imperial plaster. The Kasota limestone on the outside of the building will vary in size, coursing and surface treatment, which will give the building the appearance of a stratified stone mass. The museum is scheduled to open to the public in 2004.

According to Ray Register, senior superintendent for Clark Construction, major equipment currently involves two Pecco 400 tower cranes and a 100-ton (90 t) truck-mounted mobile crane rented from W.O. Grubb. Pre-excavation work was completed by Kalos Construction.

Register noted that the major challenge with the project is that it is “all radial — there’s not a straight line in it. Without a single exhibit, the building itself is a work of art, but the complex design of the exterior skin is difficult to maintain.”

Major subcontractors include Metro for the excavation work; Truland of Washington, D.C. for the electrical work; Pierce of D.C. for the mechanical and plumbing; Globe of Norfolk, VA, for the structural steel; and G & A Masonry for the stone masonry and construction.

The NMAI was established within the Smithsonian Institution in 1989 when a law was passed to appropriate funds for its development. The museum will actually involve three sites: the George Gustav Heye Center at the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in New York City, which opened in 1994; the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, MD, which opened in 1999; and the NMAI on the National Mall.

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