Smithsonian Institution (Smithsonian Castle)

The Smithsonian Institution Building as erected in 1847-1855 consisted of five principal parts—central section, two wings, and two connecting ranges.

There were also four principal towers (for occupation and use) and five minor towers (mainly for decoration—but useful in moving from one section of the interior of the building to another, as some contained stairs). The East Wing was divided into two stories. The upper story was a suite of rooms for the family of the Secretary above which was an ample attic. The first floor was a large storage room for the exchange of scientific publications with other institutions and museums. The East Range was also of two stories. The upper one was divided into several small rooms for use in research relating to natural history. The first floor was used as a laboratory. Both East and West Rangers had an open walk running along the inside of the north wall. The Central-Section consisted of two tall stories and a basement (200 feet long, 50 feet wide band total height 60 feet). The second story consisted of a large lecture room capable of holding 2,000 people, with two smaller rooms, one on either side (each 50 feet square).

These latter rooms were used as a museum of scientific instruments and as an art gallery (mostly the Catlin portraits of American Indians). Both of these rooms were occasionally used as minor lecture rooms for meetings by scientific organizations. The first story consisted of an enormous room to be used as a museum. it remained empty in 1855 due to lack of exhibit cases. The ceiling of the room was supported by two rows of columns extending the entire length. Joseph Henry referred to this room in 1855 as "in appearance one of the most imposing rooms in this country." The floor of the middle part of this great hall was laid in cut stone - the remaining floor being of wood. The basement of the central section was used for the storage of fuel and lumber. The West Range of one floor only was in use in 1855 as a reading room. The West Wing also, commonly known as the "chapel," consisted of one floor only and was first used as a library.

The Smithsonian Institution Building was designed by the prominent New York City architect, James Renwick, Jr., and erected I847-1855 on the Mall, near the present Independence Avenue and 10th Street, S.W., Washington, D.C. It was built to house the Smithsonian Institution, which had been chartered by Act of Congress the preceding year, in 1846. The Smithsonian was established due to the generous bequest of approximately $500,000 by James Smithson, English scientist and the illegitimate son of the Duke of North Cumberland. By the terms of the will, Smithson's estate was to pass to his nephew (1829). The estate was then to become the property of the United States government should the nephew die without direct heirs. The United States actually acquired the funds when the contested bequest was settled in the British courts in London in 1838 after the death of Smithson's nephew. The new institution was not chartered, however, until 1846.

Built 1847-55 (James Renwick, architect); alterations by Adolph Cluss after 1865 fire
DC Inventory: November 8, 1964,
National Historic Landmark: January 12, 1965
National Register: October 15, 1966



Jefferson Drive between 9th & 12th Streets, NW