Editor's Pick

A New Light on American History

Set on five acres next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is the Smithsonian Institution’s newest addition: the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Its mission is to be a place where visitors can learn about the African-American experience in hopes of stimulating a ­dialogue—and there’s plenty to talk about.

The visit begins with an elevator ride down several stories below ground, where visitors proceed on a crisscrossing ramp to the three-story History Gallery. On the “Slavery and Freedom” floor, the first sight is of a reassembled, actual slave cabin, followed by a cabin used by freed slaves.

Visitors then go up a ramp to the “Era of Segregation” floor, where they view a Pullman train car, a nod to the company that hired many African-Americans workers. They can look up to see a training aircraft flown by Tuskegee airmen suspended from the ceiling, and to view an ominous guard tower. Other exhibits explore the events of “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond.”

“It’s a kind of trajectory that’s very important,” said David Adjaye, the museum’s design architect. “The inclusion in the military, the inclusion in public life, the emergence of the black middle class within the country, and then the final part is the entertainment and the arts … looking at what music and culture, what African-American music, translated through the American identity, has done to the world.”

While all other museums on the Mall have a stone or brick facade, this new museum has steel and glass walls, surrounded by a three-tiered outer layer inspired by the crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa. Resembling 19th-century ironwork created by enslaved craftsmen in New Orleans, it is made of 3,600 bronze-colored, cast-aluminum panels formed of curved strips of metal. The “corona,” as it’s called, is suspended by steel from the fifth-floor concrete deck down to the ground-floor ring beam on all four sides of the building. 

A unique project for all

The electrical contractor was Mona Electric Group Inc. of Clinton, Md., a family-owned company celebrating its 50th anniversary.

“We’ve done a lot of projects, but this one stands out because of what it means to the country and to the African-American community,” said David McKay, president and CEO of Mona Electric. “We’re proud to be part of something this important.”

The museum’s construction management was a joint venture of Clark Construction, Smoot Construction and JH Russell and Co.

While the importance of the museum can’t be denied, neither can its complicated design and structure, which presented continuing challenges to the contractors.

Museum curators acquired some 40,000 objects, less than 10 percent of which will be on display. To hold all of the artifacts and exhibits, and to not overwhelm other buildings on the National Mall in terms of size, 60 percent of the structure is below ground. From the museum’s lowest level to the roof is the equivalent of 10 stories, with five above ground and five below.

There are four core areas in the building—northwest, northeast, southeast and southwest.

“From these cores is where our risers for power, lighting, fire alarm and other systems come up through the building from the basement to the roof,” said Jason Johnson, senior project manager, Mona Electric.

Power from the utility company’s transformers on the street enters the building below-grade on the mezzanine level and is routed to the switchgear, then sent down to the lowest level. From there, it comes up through the rest of the building.

Mona Electric needed to plan where and how it was going to do its work while the museum was still under construction. Early coordination with the other trades was key.

“It was very challenging to try to find pathways to get to certain areas that didn’t stack on top of each other in this building,” said Jeff Watson, job site superintendent, Mona Electric. “The building above-grade is a square structure, however, below-grade is another story.”

Due to the amount of steel reinforcement, very little conduit was run within the concrete slabs in the building, and there was little space available in the ceilings to install all of the power, lighting and other systems the building required.

“Eighty to 90 percent was coordinated, and the last 10 percent we had to work out in the field,” Johnson said. “It was difficult to coordinate our work to locate routes for conduits for power and other systems wiring, runs of cable tray, lighting fixtures and other trades work throughout the building. We had to sleeve the beams to run conduits through them. We also bored through the large beams so we could run pipes through later.”

Challenges around every corner

Mona Electric’s installation tactics varied by area. The mounting and installation of 360 fluorescent lighting fixtures behind the building’s corona panels—and running feeds to them that blend into the structure—was complicated by the fact that the corona is about 6 feet away from the facade. 

To simplify installation, Mona Electric opted to prefabricate steel structures to house wiring to which three rows of lights were mounted. A company that specializes in working in high, hard-to-reach areas was hired to install them within the exterior corona area. To mount baseboard-type heaters in runs on three levels and all four sides, Mona Electric’s crew worked off of swing stages.

Mona Electric and the other trades needed to stay clear of “no-fly zones,” areas the length of corridors from wall to wall to a set elevation above the floor. Those areas allowed for movement of large equipment and exhibits through the building during construction and will be used for installation of future exhibits.

Some bulky exhibits, such as the Pullman train car and guard tower, were positioned before the roof of the History Gallery was constructed. They were hoisted by large cranes and lowered into their final location. To allow space for that process, trailers used by the various trades had to be moved, and the temporary power provided to them had to be removed by Mona Electric and reinstalled later. 

In the first-floor entrance area, which boasts a high ceiling that will be used for a variety of displays and events, Mona Electric installed receptacles that drop down from the ceiling and are available through skyhooks and concealed floor boxes.

The loading dock and back-of-house areas are on the underground concourse level on the structure’s south side. The north side houses the uppermost floor of the History Gallery. Up in the almost-50-foot ceiling is a monorail track system for a movable platform that will be used to access and maintain lights and suspended exhibits. Mona Electric installed power outlets to operate motors for raising and lowering the platform.

“Since the design required the track to be at a height that could not be changed, we had to coordinate and install the light fixtures and 40-plus outlets that needed to be above the track and also be accessible along with the conduit in order to feed them in the sloped, steel I-beam structure that is supporting the concrete ceiling,” Johnson said.

Moving above ground

After the History Gallery, visitors enter the open Contemplative Court, which includes an atrium and a reflecting pool.

“It’s a peaceful place for visitors to stop and contemplate what they’ve seen and learned about the African-American past,” Watson said.

Water pours out of an opening over the pool, creating a circular waterfall.

“A lot of work was involved in getting the waterfall done and getting everything ready because we had to coordinate around the waterfall to get our light feeds, fire alarm devices and VESDA [smoke] detection system up in the center point above the waterfall, up in the high ceiling,” Watson said.

That involved the installation of 40 lighting fixtures in the bottom of the water feature, a stone pond.

“Each of the 40 fixtures has its own cord coming off it so we had to find a pathway for each out to a junction box by coordinating behind or underneath the stone of the pond to install path ways below and behind the stone without penetrating the waterproofing while also hiding the tails,” Johnson said.

On the same level as the court is the Oprah Winfrey Theatre, where Mona Electric installed a theatrical lighting control system. The theater has four riggings that raise and lower from the ceiling for mounting lights and anything else needed for a performance. Mona Electric installed lighting fixture plug strips on those units to provide power to move them when crews need to work on or position the lights; the company also mounted house lights so stage crews will have visibility to set up for performances and installed a 200-amp company switch.

The museum’s upper floors celebrate the historic and cultural contributions of African-Americans. Musician Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac is on display, as are artifacts, costumes, clothing and uniforms, photos, video and audio of inventors, history-makers, performers and athletes. 

The majority of those exhibits were fed from the floor below, adding to the amount of conduit to be coordinated in the ceilings below the third, fourth and fifth floors.

“Our base building team, which I was also part of, ran the conduit before the exhibits were installed,” said Randy Donahue, foreman for the exhibits, Mona Electric. “Later, when we got the contract for the exhibit portion, we hired a subcontractor to pull the wire. Then Design & Production Inc., of Lorton, Va., hooked up the wire to the various speakers projectors and monitors. Mona Electric’s exhibit team hooked up all the lighting and dimmer racks. It’s been a big team effort.”

It was a challenging effort for many reasons.

“Several stories of the building are underground and since we had water seepage, the majority of the conduits had to be run overhead,” said Keith Keller, MEP supervisor, Clark Construction Group. “In spite of that and other issues, Mona was six weeks ahead of schedule. The workmanship they’ve done here has been excellent.” 

The museum has achieved LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council and, in terms of sustainability, includes photovoltaic panels that will provide electricity to heat water for the building. 

On Sept. 24, thousands gathered on the National Mall for the museum’s opening. Only a few were allowed in the museum that day, but those that entered peeked through the openings in the corona and looked out on the Washington Monument, the Lincoln and World War II memorials, the White House, and many other museums on the Mall—reminding visitors of the integral role of African-American history and culture in the United States.

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