by gene bacher, volunteer tour guide

In FY13, 253 volunteers and interns generously offered their passion and energy to the National Building Museum. Acting as docents, Museum Shop clerks, visitor services representatives, educators, and assisting all staff departments, these generous individuals support the Museum and its mission every day of the year.

For this year’s Annual report, we asked veteran docent Gene Bacher to tell the story of how he became one of our fantastic volunteers.

Obviously, there are lots of opportunities to volunteer in the Washington Metropolitan area. I chose the National Building Museum as one of the places to expend my energy in retirement because of a latent interest in architecture and historic preservation. After a year and a half of giving tours and other behind the scenes duties, I have not been disappointed. I have been overjoyed with what I have learned and with my many interactions with Museum visitors.

Though I’ve lived in the area for over forty years, learning about the history of the establishment of the federal district, Pierre L’Enfant’s design for that space, and how it evolved into the city of today dispelled many myths and gave me new perspectives on  policy,  politics, and land use planning.

As a former federal employee and member of the armed forces, the building’s genesis as a federal office building providing pension services to the military strikes a resonant chord and permits me to highlight the value our society places on military service to the country and the importance of federal activity to fulfill this obligation.

The building’s transformation as a primary venue for Presidential Inaugural Balls lets me talk to the importance of the peaceful acceptance or transfer of Presidential authority and lets me remind people of the rules that were devised in the Constitution and how they play out in actuality. As a bonus, the look of surprise when visitors learn that the fountain becomes the Presidential dance floor is worth the price of admission.

The role of Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs as the person who imagined the building and brought it to fruition lets me emphasize the importance of imagination in the built world while the practical structural engineering issues he had to address and how he solved them permits me to introduce visitors to the realities of the built world, a world that most folks take for granted.

In short, the chance to help people of all ages understand how the world we live in gets built and preserved has been one of my most rewarding experiences in retirement. From letting pre-kindergartners touch and handle straw, sticks, and bricks while reading The Three Little Pigs to explaining how Rafael Guastavino and his son immigrated here with skills and knowledge unknown on this continent and used their capabilities to create palaces for the people to helping youngsters experience the built world through the Big Build, all my experiences have been fulfilling beyond my wildest expectations. I deeply appreciate the opportunity to participate in this fascinating adventure.

Thank you to all our dedicated volunteers!


A volunteer docent gives a building tour to Museum visitors.


“After a year and a half of giving tours and other behind the scenes duties, I have not been disappointed.’

Gene Bacher


Watch Gene’s appearance on C-SPAN discussing the Museum’s Inaugural Ball history.