Washington Business Journal | Design Perspectives: Bible museum architecture soars in subtle and magnificent ways

The newly opened Museum of the Bible in Southwest D.C. transforms a 1920s warehouse into a compelling, multimedia showplace for interpreting the world’s most read book.

Among the enticements of this 430,000-square-foot venue – one of the city’s largest museums — are a walk-through recreation of ancient Nazareth, an interactive children’s area, a 472-seat theater for dramatic productions and a rooftop restaurant with an outdoor garden.

Reconfiguring the old warehouse to house these attractions could have upstaged its robust red brick structure, but architect David Greenbaum of the D.C. office of SmithGroupJJR largely avoided overt religious references in his design. He celebrates this industrial landmark — an anomaly within a federal precinct — by restoring original architectural elements lost over time and skillfully inserting contemporary additions to accommodate the museum.

Built in 1923 by the Terminal Refrigerating and Warehousing Co., the repository originally housed cold and dry storage, an ice-making plant and offices. It was subsequently remodeled in the 1950s and, in the 1980s, became home to the Washington Design Center.

Greenbaum filled in openings created during these previous renovations and left the patchy brick repairs visible, an effect he compares to a biblical manuscript bearing traces of text added and erased over time.

The warehouse is shaped like New York’s Flatiron Building and now incorporates new bays on its long flanks that adjoin the bland Washington Office Center to the east. In linking the structures, the architect rejected the preservationist cliché of glass infill as a neutral connection.

Instead, he chose thin, handmade bricks for the bays to introduce changes in texture and color from the original masonry. The results are strong yet simple, injecting doses of modernism into the neoclassical warehouse to signal its new life as a museum.

Translucent cast-glass channels inserted into the windows of the bays and other places throughout the museum convey an icy appearance, symbolic of the warehouse refrigeration. Along D Street, new openings mark the locations where loading docks once stood and a steel-and-glass canopy now protects visitors from the elements as they queue for entry.

On the roof, a dynamic, two-story addition with a jutting prow creates a striking profile for the museum. The curved side of this roof projection along D Street is sheathed in glass to provide a top-floor gallery with access to the theater and a ballroom, while offering impressive views of the cityscape. Up close, the glazing evidences a bible reference in frit patterns resembling the stacked leaves of a book.

Viewed from Fourth Street, this crowning structure resembles a barrel vault pulled apart and twisted to convey a sense of visual tension — an apt expression given the controversies surrounding the museum founders.

Earlier this year, the owners of the Oklahoma-based craft store chain Hobby Lobby, whose president Steve Green chairs the Museum of the Bible board, agreed to pay a $3 million fine for illegally importing thousands of ancient Iraqi artifacts into the United States. Green and his family, evangelical Christians who helped fund the museum, previously made headlines after challenging the Obamacare mandate to provide insurance coverage of contraception and winning their case before the Supreme Court in 2014.

Avoiding these issues, the Museum of Bible presents the history and impact of Scripture in a surprisingly educational, nonsectarian way to appeal to a diverse audience. Even skeptics wary of the founders’ evangelism will be hard pressed not to be won over by its mix of entertainment and scholarship used for presenting broad cultural themes.

The museum’s message about its mission starts at the entrance on Fourth Street, where trains once pulled their cargo from an adjacent rail line into the warehouse. Framing the portal are tall brass panels inscribed with backward text from Genesis to emulate the typesetting blocks used to print the Gutenberg Bible. Inside the entranceway, stained glass replicates a handwritten psalm from an ancient manuscript discovered by a Swiss scholar in Egypt. Both art pieces were created by D.C. artist Larry Kirkland in collaboration with the architect.

Inside, the museum is well organized and easy to navigate. From a vestibule, visitors enter a grand, limestone-paved arcade that recalls a church nave. Set into the 40-foot-high ceiling are hundreds of LED panels programmed with colorful, ever-changing imagery, from Gothic architecture to cloud-filled skies. The digital array is emblematic of the cutting-edge technology used throughout the museum.

The long lobby ends in an atrium where a staircase and elevators connect six floors of exhibitions and amenities. This visually calm circulation hub allows visitors to decompress in between experiencing immersive displays and special effects.

In designing the space, the architect may have been thinking about a staircase to heaven. The staircase is topped by a huge skylight and each level gets lighter with the ascent. Wrapping the wood and metal flights are glass balusters finished in with what looks like white fog creeping up the sides to manuscript-inspired floral patterns. Daylight from tall windows on the stair landings and lighting around the balconies heighten the celestial effect.

Designed by six firms, the exhibitions on the second, third and fourth floors showcase the museum’s collections of ancient manuscripts, printed Bibles and cultural artifacts, while incorporating theaters and environments for videos, projected images and sound effects. They treat the Bible as a lens through which to interpret a vast range of topics, from religious freedom in colonial America to contemporary fashion and music.

There are many delights to discover in the Museum of the Bible, most notably its architectural improvements to one of the District’s few historic warehouses. The leaders of this institution are to be applauded for turning this industrial building close to the Mall into a cultural asset, appealing to believers and nonbelievers alike.

Read more at Design Perspectives: Bible museum architecture soars in subtle and magnificent ways.