Smithsonian Quadrangle Historic District

The Smithsonian Quadrangle adapted to urban renewal and the development of the National Mall.

The Smithsonian Quadrangle features four buildings in a campus-like setting on the south side of the National Mall: the Smithsonian Castle (1847-55), the Arts and Industries Building (1879-81), the Freer Gallery of Art (1923), and the largely underground Quadrangle Building (1983-87). The Quadrangle Building houses the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, National Museum of African Art, and S. Dillon Ripley Center, each with its above-ground entrance pavilion. The Haupt Garden covering the main roof of the building also incorporates the Renwick Gates, the Downing Urn, and nineteenth century lampposts and garden furnishings from the Bicentennial Victorian Garden that once occupied a portion of the site.

The Quadrangle Building occupies the area historically known as the “South Yard.” For many years, the Castle and its sparsely planted back yard served as an incubator for fledgling museums and research programs. Over time, the yard became a convenient place for various utilitarian structures and uses. In the 1870s, it served as a museum construction yard; in the 1880s, bison were kept in a paddock, awaiting the opening of the National Zoo in 1889. After the bison left, an astrophysical observatory was built, followed by various sheds and annexes. A taxidermist shop appeared in 1917, and the same year, the Army erected a metal building for wartime repair of aircraft engines. By 1920, that structure was repurposed with public displays as the Aircraft Building, and in 1946, it became the National Air Museum, whose public displays grew to include a startling outdoor collection of rockets.

The 1960s urban renewal of Southwest, and its transformation of Independence Avenue into a formal row of federal office buildings, rendered the jumble of the South Yard embarrassingly obsolete. The Smithsonian’s then Secretary, S. Dillon Ripley began to envision the Yard as a more formal space in keeping with the redeveloped Independence Avenue. By 1980, the American architectural team of Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott (SBRA) was hired to implement Japanese architect Junzo Yoshimura’s design. However, architect Jean Paul Carlhian is credited as the principal designer of the Quandrangle Building, since there were significant redesigns of Yoshimura’s building plans. Carlhian’s key collaborator in designing the Haupt Garden was landscape architect Lester A. Collins.  

The Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission played key roles in reviewing the design of the project. For seven years, between the initial stages of design until the building’s completion, the design review bodies critiqued and approved the complex, element by element. The Haupt Garden, the finishing touch, opened to the public in May 1987, followed in September by the underground museum spaces.

DC Inventory: April 27, 2017



950 Independence Avenue SW