Although Congress passed a law authorizing the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a national arboretum in DC in 1927, more than three decades passed before the U.S. National Arboretum was open to the public on a daily basis.
The earliest proposals for a national arboretum date back to the 1901 McMillan Commission. The process of establishing the arboretum, however, was slow: the Commission of Fine Arts proposed a location in 1921, and after Congress authorized the arboretum, the first 189 acres were purchased in 1928, followed by an additional 196 acres in 1934. Further acquisitions in subsequent decades brought the arboretum to its current 446-acre size. The noted landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and Arthur A. Shurtleff worked together to develop an early plan for the space, but this plan never came to fruition. For years, little was accomplished on the arboretum project at all—the only major work, mostly cleaning up the land, was completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
After World War II, work on the arboretum picked up considerably. Between 1947 and 1948, the Public Buildings Administration developed a new plan, featuring a main entrance for visitors, an administration building, and several greenhouses. Modifications to the plan have been made over the years, but the development of the arboretum has generally followed this 1948 plan closely. Construction on a system of roads traversing the land began around 1949 and finished in 1958, and the arboretum finally opened for daily public use the following year.
Gradually, the planned buildings went up. Five greenhouses were finished in 1962, and the arboretum’s main structure, the administration building, was dedicated in 1964. Designed by the well-known modernist architectural firm of Deigert and Yerkes, the white concrete building attracted acclaim upon its completion. The firm received an award from the American Institute of Architects for their work. An architecture critic at the time hailed it as "a graceful, almost delicate garden pavilion, set in a pool," noting how the building "seems to stand by itself, mirrored in the water."
Most of the original, centuries-old forested landscape of the arboretum remains preserved, and evidence indicates that in past centuries the land housed Piscataway Native American habitations and, later, 19th century spring houses. Many collections of flowers, trees, and other botanicals have been added to develop the arboretum, starting with the 1957 planting of the Azalea Collection. In addition to its regular planted collections, the arboretum grows cultivars that are distributed to localities nationwide and serves as a repository for botanical gifts from other countries.
The most notable international gifts at the National Arboretum are located in the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, which opened in 1976 after Japan made the United States a gift of 53 bonsai trees to celebrate the U.S. bicentennial. Originally just a collection of these trees, the museum has expanded to include North American bonsai and Chinese penjing. One of the most significant trees in the collection is a Japanese white pine in training since 1625, which survived the atomic blast in Hiroshima from only two miles away.
Situated in the center of the arboretum are the National Capitol Columns, which stood at the Capitol from 1828 to 1958 as part of the building’s east portico. Installed before the Capitol dome was completed in 1866, the columns appeared to be insufficient to support the finished structure. An addition to the east side of the Capitol restored an appearance of balance to the building, and the original columns were removed. Added to the arboretum in the 1980s, only 22 of the 24 Corinthian columns stand; two broken columns rest on their sides in the Azalea Collection.
DC Inventory: March 7, 1968 (Joint Committee on Landmarks)
National Register: April 11, 1973