More than 20 years in the making, the National Museum of the United States Army (NMUSA) opened its doors in time for Veterans Day of 2020. The museum, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) as a series of pavilions for exhibits and special events, sprawls 84 acres across the bucolic Fort Belvoir Military Installation in Virginia – just 20 miles outside Washington, DC. Part of SOM’s design and planning for the future of the site also includes a quiet memorial garden, a parade field and grandstand, as well as an Army Trail with interpretive stations. Several varieties of natural stone are prominently showcased throughout the design of the 185,000-square-foot building, which is LEED Silver-certified.
“The Army Historical Foundation envisioned a building that would tell the complete story of the Army, and the goal was to tell this story through the perspective of the individual soldier,” said the SOM design team. “As architects, our role was to manifest this personal experience into the design itself – to create a building that would resonate with any veteran.
“We accomplished this in several ways,” the design team went on to say. “One of the most obvious examples is a series of stainless steel pylons, each sharing an individual soldier story, that guide visitors from an outdoor promenade, through the vestibule and into the exhibition hall. Concepts such as discipline and modesty, which resonate with the Army, drove the design. The stainless steel paneling on the facade is part of this. They are characterized by precision and that sense of rigor. In the lobby, the ceiling is designed with coffers and a series of translucent glass panels that match campaign streamers used throughout the Army’s history. Veterans, and descendants of veterans from the last 250 years, will be able to connect with those streamers and the campaigns that they represent. Directly above the lobby, there is also a Medal of Honor Garden with a 10-foot-tall black granite wall engraved with the names of the Army’s medal recipients that can be used for future ceremonies. We have also included another event space right beside the Veterans’ Hall for both Army veterans and for their families.”
According to SOM, creating a welcoming public building on an active Army installation posed a unique challenge. “The building complies with the Unified Facilities Criteria (UFC) for military-related projects and incorporates a number of safety and security features beyond what is ordinarily found in museums,” the design team explained. “Those include landscape elements like standoffs and berms, as well as building hardening and force protection measures. One goal for the design team was to incorporate that added security as unobtrusively as possible. The museum is a highly secure facility that nonetheless opens outward to the landscape and welcomes visitors.”
Absolute Black granite was employed in three critical locations within the museum. In the lobby, it forms a feature wall engraved with the names of past Army campaigns, as well as a wall dedicated to museum donors. Above, in the Medal of Honor Garden, the same material was used for a wall engraved with the names of recipients of the Medal.
“We chose Absolute Black granite for several reasons,” said the design team. “As with the stainless steel used in the building facade, its appearance shifts depending on the viewer’s position and time of day. At some moments, it is solid and dark, and at others, reflective of its surroundings. That visitors can see their own reflections in these walls reinforces the larger design goal of centering the building around the individual soldier.
On a more practical note, Absolute Black granite is an excellent stone for engraving because of its uniform appearance and lack of figure. This ensures that the text remains easily legible.”
SOM shared that it is a proponent of designing with natural stone. “We worked on the NMUSA over the course of almost two decades,” said the design team. “Throughout that time, the building’s design evolved in significant ways, but the central goal of embodying the Army’s core principles remained constant. Ultimately, natural stone was chosen for its durability, beauty and symbolic resonance.”
Additionally, the design team utilized striped granite pavers that match the interior coffered ceilings throughout the Medal of Honor Garden. Stone was also the chosen material for several other landscaping applications. Among them are the commemorative “bricks” that line the main promenade, which are cut from Mesabi Black granite quarried by Coldspring.
Coldspring’s ability and willingness to work with the project team to provide and develop options for the project, availability of materials conducive to the project design and needs, capacity and ability to supply material as needed are some reasons why Mesabi Black granite was chosen. The Minnesota-based stone producer began working with the Army Historical Foundation in 2012 to review material and pricing options for granite donor and commemorative “brick” pavers, which typically ranged in size from 4 x 8 and 8 x 8 inches.
The Army Historical Foundation was the designated entity responsible for the museum’s fundraising efforts. They desired to create a Donor Paver Program that would allow individuals, organizations and supporters to purchase granite pavers with engraved lettering to honor soldiers and members of the Army. The donor brick pavers were used to generate funds for the project and were displayed in the Museum’s Path of Remembrance main promenade.
Coldspring worked extensively with the Army Historical Foundation on the donor brick pavers regarding engraving options and capabilities, fulfillment, pricing, scheduling and shipping considerations. The engraving and fulfillment of the granite brick pavers were ultimately provided by another company, and Coldspring was instrumental in working and coordinating with the engraving vendor.
Further enhancing the outdoor design are exterior benches and pavers in the main entry plaza made from Virginia Mist granite.
Samples of varying sizes, as well as photographs to understand consistency, finish, color and veining, were reviewed by the design team prior to the stone’s installation. “We also reviewed and modified mock-ups of the wall and benches and spent time at the installer’s shop to review engraving options, edge conditions and techniques for both fabrication and installation,” said the design team.
When looking back on the project and recalling one the most memorable moments, particularly relating to the stonework, SOM explains that the three Absolute Black granite feature walls stand out as crucial in regard to the building’s meaning and symbolism. “In particular, the wall at the back of the lobby that is inscribed with the names of Army campaigns becomes a focal point of the space and catches the visitor’s eye as they enter the museum,” they said. “It also helps visitors interpret the coffered ceiling above, which is painted in campaign streamer colors, and establishes the museum’s focus on the story of the individual soldier.”
Design and construction of the NMUSA spanned close to 20 years. “SOM won the design competition for the project nearly two decades ago,” said the design team. “The fundraising campaign for the museum took some time, and we broke ground in 2016. Late last year, the building was completed.”
A sustainable design
Sustainability was also a consideration that was a top priority for the museum’s design. “The project is certified LEED Silver,” explained the design team. “We accomplished this through several solutions, including increased insulation, a low window-to-wall ratio, high-efficiency LED lighting, automatic daylighting controls and occupancy sensors, multiple landscaped terraces and a green roof.”
“One of our primary goals in the design process was to reduce the overall carbon impact of the new museum while creating a high-performance building that expressed the storied principles of the Army,” said SOM Design Partner Colin Koop.
“Our partners at SOM did a magnificent job helping us envision a museum that would reflect the Army’s storied history, its values, and the service of the 30 million men and women who have worn its uniform,” said LTG Roger Schultz, USA (Ret.), president of the Army Historical Foundation, the nonprofit organization that campaigned to construct the museum. “SOM’s ability to produce such an impressive design while ensuring the museum is also green and sustainable is a credit to their team and representative of our shared values.”
National Museum of the United States Army
Architect: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM)
General Contractor: Clark Construction
Stone Installer: Rugo Stone, LLC, Lorton, VA
Stone Producers: Coldspring, Cold Spring, MN (Mesabi Black granite); Virginia Mist Group Inc., Rapidan, VA (Virginia Mist granite)