Big Dreams, Small Buildings

National Building Museum receives gift of tiny souvenirs

Architecture East On View
Architect David Weingarten donated thousands of building souvenirs to the Washington, D.C., museum. Pictured: A model of Herzog and de Meuron's stadium for the Beijing Olympics. (Courtesy National Building Museum)
Architect David Weingarten donated thousands of building souvenirs to the Washington, D.C., museum. Pictured: A model of Herzog and de Meuron's stadium for the Beijing Olympics. (Courtesy National Building Museum)

From precious lockets concealing portraits of distant lovers to souvenir Statue of Liberty pencil sharpeners, miniatures have long been associated with memory. More potent than postcards or photographs, there’s a weight—real and figurative—to novelty architectural objects that you can hold in the palm of your hand and proudly display on your bookshelf or mantle—perhaps as a welcome reminder, after a long day of corporate drudgery, that you were once someplace genuinely spectacular. The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., recently announced the donation of more than 3,000 of these tiny totems from the collection of architect David Weingarten.

Photo of a metal model of Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral

A souvenir model of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, shown with the now-destroyed spire (Courtesy National Building Museum)

The 20th Century Souvenir Buildings Collection represents more than 40 years of travel across 60 countries. What prompted Weingarten’s passion for collection? His first object, a miniature version of the Speyer Cathedral, was purchased in 1976 during a trip to Germany with his uncle, the architect Charles Moore who was known for his appreciation of place and memory. Moore purchased a larger representation of the cathedral, and both objects are now part of the Building Musem’s permanent collection.

In addition to historic cathedrals, the collection includes anonymous American banks—perhaps given away with a free checking account—and iconic landmarks like the Tower of Pisa. Many of these souvenirs are solid casts made from metal, wax, or rubber; others conceal unexpected functions, like the Tower of Pisa lipstick case, which houses a striking red shade that promises to make your lips look leaner as you wistfully recall that magical summer in Tuscany.

Photo of a small model of the leaning tower of Pisa next to a model of a tube of lipstick

A gold-plated, cast silver lipstick case replica of the Tower of Pisa (Courtesy National Building Museum)

“Among the surprising truths of souvenir buildings is that they almost never cause us to recall just buildings,” said Weingarten in a statement. “Rather, we think of the place and its setting, ourselves and those with whom we visited, of the day or night, the time of year, moments momentous and everyday—that universe of reflection we associate with memorable places. Inevitably and ironically, for each of us, the identical souvenir building arouses extravagantly varied reminiscences.”

Items from the collection are already on display at the National Building Museum, inviting visitors to recall their own “moments momentous and everyday,” and perhaps this collection will inspire others to go someplace genuinely spectacular.

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