Moments in Academy History

CHAPTER TWO - Architecture and Art: The NAS Building's Exterior


The National Academy of Sciences Building was widely acclaimed by the popular and scientific press. The neoclassical building provided the NAS with its long-desired headquarters. Its prime location along the National Mall is shown in this south-facing,
elevated view from C Street with the Lincoln Memorial in the background. NAS Archives.7


The bronze doors and marble cornice of the Constitution Avenue façade are examples of the work by sculptor Lee Lawrie throughout the interior and exterior of the building.
© 2012 Maxwell MacKenzie

Goodhue, responding to the challenges of the Commission's view that a classic design was aesthetically desirable for the site because it was within view of the Lincoln Memorial, devised a creative solution that combined the regularities of Classicism with his own preference for “irregular” forms. This novel synthesis came to be known as the “Alexandrian” style.8  This synthesis gives the building a modern aspect, which accords with Goodhue's well-known statement that the building was meant to be a “modern and scientific building, built with modern and scientific materials, by modern and scientific methods for a modern and scientific set of clients.”

The exterior walls are formed of stone courses of white Dover marble, irregularly sized and recessed to form a battered, or inwardly-sloping, profile.  The battered profile was a hallmark of Egyptian architecture, and its appearance in the Academy building façade is consistent with Goodhue's late-career interest in Egyptian architecture.  In many respects, the battered profile is a key to the building's overall effect.  This gentle inward slope, accentuated by a slight entasis or convexity in the pillars, creates a sense of gravity and permanence.  Similarly, the frame of the main doorway, standing at the center of the façade, is a simple, battered structure whose sparsely decorated jambs and thick lintel contribute to the overall impression of solid mass.

One of the most notable Greek elements of the façade is the inscription running along the frieze.  The text, from the Metaphysics by Aristotle (a. 1. 993a30-993b4), was selected by Robert Scoon of the Princeton University Classics Department at the request of the Academy for a suitable Greek quotation consisting of a specified number of letters.  The translated quotation reads:

  The investigation of truth is in one way hard and in another way easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth entirely, while on the other hand no one fails entirely, but everyone says something true about the nature of things, and by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed.  

Continue Reading:

  A Home for Science in America Origins The Site Selection of an Architect Early Concepts of the Building The NAS Building's Exterior Exterior Stone Carvings and Bronze Work The Grounds The Entry Foyer The Great Hall Exhibits Library & Reading Room The Lecture Room and the Board Room The Wings The Auditorium Restoration Cleaning and Conservation of the Historic Core New Spaces and New Infrastructure
Endnotes Credits

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