The NAS Building

The Main Foyer and the Great Hall

Inside the building the green and white color scheme of the exterior continues. The main doorway opens on a simple neoclassical vestibule and reception foyer with walls of creamy Lens stone, a fossil-rich limestone from the region of Caen, France. Green painted bronze and glass grilles bearing the signs of the zodiac, scientific symbols to the ancients, screen the foyer at both ends; a silver vine design decorates the mahogany ceiling. Four bronze lamps, similar in design to the bowls in which vestal virgins carried fire, illuminate the foyer.

Nothing in the design or scale of the foyer prepares the visitor for the grandeur and colorful decoration of the Great Hall, which opens from the foyer. The Great Hall measures 64 feet square and rises to a height of 56 feet at the apex of the dome. Designed as the building's central feature, it served as an auditorium until completion of the auditorium wing in 1970.

Hildreth Meiere's (1893-1961) emblematic figures and inscriptions, brilliantly painted on gessoed tiles which adorn the dome, give full expression to the architect's intention of creating a "temple of science." Meiere's adaptability and willingness to experiment in various media made her a frequent and valuable collaborator for Goodhue. When Goodhue's idea of painting the tile on the Academy dome did not yield the desired effect, Meiere tried an innovative technique—gesso on tile to a depth of about one-half inch. The material, applied hot and by hand, provides a textured surface.6

Cruciform in shape, the Great Hall is vaulted and supports a central dome on pendentives which are decorated by female figures representing earth, air, fire, and water—the four elements of the ancient Greeks. (Pendentives are triangular sections of a sphere that permit transition from a rectangular ground plan to a circular dome.) Adjacent to each figure, three small circles contain objects reflecting practical ways these elements have been harnessed for humanity's use: Earth—level with pendulum bob, compass, plowshare; Air—bellows, sailboat, windmill; Fire—candle, teapot, kiln; and Water—well, water wheel, and a figure representing water's three stages (vapor, liquid, and ice).

At the apex of the dome a conventionalized sun is encircled by symbols of the eight planets7and the inscription: Ages and cycles of nature in ceaseless sequence moving. Below this band the dome divides into eight radial panels. Each contains a figure symbolizing one of the principal divisions of science  accompanied by two smaller emblems. Beginning with the panel immediately over the north wall facing the room's entrance and moving counterclockwise are found: Anthropology, with early man and the Roman Caesar; Geology, with axe, pick, and trilobite fossil; Chemistry, with retort on tripod, test tube, and burner; Astronomy, with sextant, planet, and stars; Physics, with magnet and air pump; Mathematics, with abacus and diagram of the Pythagorean theorem; Botany, with peas and sunflower; and Zoology, with zebra and starfish.

Below these eight panels, on a drum circling the dome, is the inscription: To science, pilot of industry, conqueror of disease, multiplier of the harvest, explorer of the universe, revealer of nature's laws, eternal guide to truth. The round soffit arches over the galleries and the north wall display Meiere's interpretation of the insignia of four of the world's oldest academies of science, with attendant representations of discoveries made by their members. On the north arch, above the entrance doors to the auditorium wing, in the Museum of Alexandria, founded by Ptolemy I (367-283 B.C.), represented by an Egyptian pylon flanked by palm trees. The two lower medallions depict two of the seven wonders of the ancient world--the pyramids and Pharos, the great lighthouse of Alexandria, reputed to have been 400 feet high. Over the east gallery is the crowned lynx, symbol of the Accademia dei Lincei, Rome, founded in 1603; in the medallions are Volta's electric pile and Galileo's telescope. Above the south gallery is the symbol of the Academie des Sciences, Paris, founded in 1666; the medallions show Daguerre's camera and the flask in which Pascal weighed air. The symbol of the Royal Society of London, founded in 1660, is over the west galley; in the medallions are Newton's prism showing the spectrum and Watt's steam engine.

On the Great Hall's north wall a painting by Albert Herter (1871-1950) portrays Prometheus, aided by Athena, stealing the divine fire from the chariot of Helios, the sun god, to bring mankind the flame of knowledge. The artist followed ancient Greek and Egyptian mural painting custom in labeling the figures.8 Beneath the painting a quotation from Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound recites the benefits conferred on the world by science.9

The Great Hall's three galleries, paneled with inlaid American walnut, are supported by columns of green verdantique marble (verde antico), with capitals of white Champville marble. Akoustilith, an acoustic material resembling cement block and considered highly sophisticated in 1922, covers the undecorated walls of the Great Hall and is the material of the dome. Wide bands of blue slate, flanked by narrow strips of Utah light bird's-eye marble, frame the floor, which is predominantly gray-green slate.

Directly beneath the apex of the dome is a Foucault pendulum and a bronze medallion in the floor whose design is based on a map of the solar system published in the Harmonia Macrocosmica ("macrocosmic harmony") of Andreas Cellarius, Amsterdam, 1661. The array of the planets is the Copernican system as known to Galileo. The medallion functions as a wellhead or cover for the spectroscope that sits just below the Great Hall's Foucault Pendulum. Reliefs representing the sun gods of many cultures circle the pendulum base. The pendulum and the spectroscope (no longer in operation) were among several scientific exhibits maintained by the Academy in the early days of the building for the interest of the general public. Several rooms adjacent to the Great Hall were also used for scientific exhibitions. During World War II this practice ended, as the space was needed for offices.

Beneath Herter's Prometheus, and framing the doorway that leads to the auditorium, are pilasters topped by Lee Lawrie's sculptured figures symbolizing Darkness and Light.

Read More:

... A Temple of Science  Recognition of Need  The Architect  The Setting and the Grounds  Description of the Building  The Façade  The Window Panels  The Doors  The Main Foyer and the Great Hall  The Library and the Members' Room  The Lecture Room and the Board Room  The Wings  The Auditorium  The Albert Einstein Memorial

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith

7 Pluto, the ninth major planet, was not discovered until 1930.

8 Herter, best known as a portraitist and muralist, has works in the collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C. Among his awards were an Honorable Mention at the Paris Salon (1890), a medal at the Atlanta Exposition (1895), the Lipincott prize (1897), and a silver medal at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York (1901).

9 "Hearken to the miseries that beset mankind. They were witless erst and I made them to have sense and be endowed with reason. Though they had eyes to see they saw in vain; they had ears but heard not. But, like to shapes in dreams, throughout their length of days without purpose they wrought all things in confusion. . . . They had no sign either of winter or of flowery spring or of fruitful summer, whereon they could depend, but in everything they wrought without judgment, until such time as I taught them to discern the risings of the stars and their settings. Aye, and numbers, too, chiefest of sciences, I invented for them, and the combining of letters, creative mother of muses' arts, wherewith to hold all things in memory. . . . Twas I and no one else that contrived the mariner's flaxen-winged car to roam the sea. . . . If ever man fell ill, there was no defence, but for lack of medicine they wasted away, until I showed them how to mix soothing remedies wherewith they now ward off all their disorders. . . . Hear the sum of the whole matter--every art possessed by man comes from Prometheus."


6 Among Meiere's collaborative works done with Goodhue were altar pieces for St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Mt. Kisco, New York, and St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Providence, Rhode Island, mosaics for St. Bartholomew's Church, New York, and a tile mural for the dome of the Nebraska State Capitol, Lincoln. Working with other architects, she also designed mosaics for Temple Emanu-El and the Irving Trust Co., in New York, the crypt mosaics at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.; the Lady Altar, St. Patrick's Cathedral, New York; and reredos for St. John's Episcopal Church, Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, and St. Mark's-on-the-Hill, Pikesville, Maryland. In 1928 Meiere received a Gold Medal from the Architectural League of New York, and in 1956 the American Institute of Architects awarded her the Fine Arts Medal.

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