The Smithsonian Institution Building was designed by prominent New York architect James Renwick, Jr. and erected between 1847 and 1855 on the Mall. It was built to house the Smithsonian Institution, which had been chartered by Act of Congress in 1846. The Smithsonian was established following the generous bequest of approximately $500,000 by James Smithson, an 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 following Smithson's death in 1829. If the nephew should die without direct heirs, the will ordered, the estate was then to become the property of the United States government. The United States acquired the funds when the contested bequest was settled in the British courts in London in 1838 after the death of Smithson's nephew, but disagreements over Smithson's intentions for the money—which he had merely stated was to be used for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge," with no indication as to how this was to be achieved—delayed the chartering of the institution until 1846.
As the first building created for the new institution, this structure—now known as the Castle—was designed to house many types of activities, including a large storage room on the first floor designed for the exchange of scientific publications with other institutions and museums, a suite of rooms for the family of the Institution's Secretary, various natural history research rooms and laboratories, a reading room, a library, and a large lecture room. Two small rooms saw use as a museum of scientific instruments and an art gallery. Both of these rooms were occasionally used as minor lecture rooms for meetings by scientific organizations.
The first story of the building consisted of an enormous room to be used as a museum, although it remained empty in 1855 due to lack of exhibit cases. Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, 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.
An 1865 fire destroyed much of the young Institution's collection and caused extensive damage to the upper floor of the building. Renovations were completed by Adolf Cluss. With the expansion of the Smithsonian Institution, the original building has come to be used primarily for administrative and visitor services.
DC Inventory: November 8, 1964
National Register: October 15, 1966
National Historic Landmark: January 12, 1965