With the federal government officially shutdown, federal institutions around the country closed their doors and went quiet this morning, including—to the dismay of tourists in Washington, D.C.—the Smithsonian Institution’s entire bevy of museums lining the National Mall. All of the museums, that is, except one.
Ironically, the only Smithsonian museum building where business is continuing as usual during the shutdown is the one still under construction: The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Designed by the four-firm team of Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup JJR, the museum broke ground in February 2012 at the intersection of 15th Street NW and Constitution Avenue—the last major parcel left on the Mall. And despite its status as a major project on the National Mall, construction will continue during the shutdown.
This is, in part, because the project was designated by Congress as a 50-50 project, meaning 50 percent federal money and 50 percent private funding, says Linda St. Thomas, chief spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution. St. Thomas also notes that “there’s a considerable amount of private funds we have raised.” The funding is called “no year money,” St. Thomas says, “meaning it is not tied to this fiscal year,” and thus exempt from the current budgetary crisis. “When you stop a construction project, you increase your costs immediately … but it doesn’t matter in this case because it’s ‘no year money.’ ” St. Thomas expects that many other similar construction projects would continue during the shutdown—and work was seen continuing today at the sites of the renovation of the Washington Monument and at the public space adjacent to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History as well.
What could have caused construction to stop was not funding, but staffing, since Smithsonian employees are among the federal workers who are facing furloughs starting today. But the project managers overseeing the construction for the institution were designated essential, and thus will continue working during the shutdown “in order to oversee the contract,” St. Thomas says.
“They don’t intend to stop construction,” says Philip Freelon, FAIA, principal of the North Carolina-based Freelon Group and one of the project’s principal designers. “They have taken measures to ensure that that work can continue.”
The fact that the construction work is continuing still leaves little for tourists to look at, as construction is taking place mostly in a hole in the ground behind fencing. “More than half the building is below grade,” Freelon says, “so there’s quite a bit to be done before you see something rising above street level.” But the excavation is complete the concrete work is ongoing, as is preparation for mechanical, electrical, and plumbing that the concrete will accommodate.
Freelon expects the below-grade work to be completed, and the structure to begin rising above street level, sometime next year. “Construction is going along at an aggressive and quick pace,” he says, “and that’s good.” The museum is still anticipating a completion date of late 2015.
In the short term, tourists who brought their children to Washington hoping to see the dinosaur skeletons at the Museum of Natural History or the moon rock at the Air and Space museum might just have to settle for giant cranes and construction vehicles at the NMAAHC building site instead.