Aug 1, 2016

An Architectural Tour of the Castle from 1864 to Today

Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle

The Smithsonian Institution Building, commonly called “The Castle,” was the first home of the institution. Its nine dark asymmetrical towers and its fortress-like embattlements represented a powerful departure from the neoclassical norm of the District.

This stark contrast was deliberate – it visually captured the unique mix of public function and private monies, as well as the English origin of the Smithsonian, represented by James Smithson’s bequest.

- Castle seen from Northwest in 1847

This distinction is also represented in the building material chosen: the red sandstone, quarried in Maryland, stood in striking contrast to the pale Aquia Creek sandstone used for previous buildings in Washington.

James Renwick Jr. won the Smithsonian building committee’s 1846 competition. The building model he designed was intended from the beginning to be a model for the nation. The large, showy structure had to allude to its many functions as a laboratory, library, lecture hall, gallery, and more.

Renwick's Proposal

One of the earliest examples of an American architectural model to exist, this wood and paper model was presented to the Smithsonian's building committee by James Renwick, Jr. with his proposal for the building in 1846. Renwick included an interchangeable north tower, seen in the background, offering the option of symmetrically balanced towers.

The Smithsonian Institution Building seen from the northeast in 1858.

Few changes had occurred on the south facade of the Smithsonian Institution Building by 1885 except for the wooden shed to the right of the south door and the alteration of the entrance on the south side of the east wing into a freight loading platform ( removed in 1971). Benches have been placed along paths in the South Yard.

The Smithsonian Castle today, seen from the South.

Inside the Castle
The Great Hall

This 1867 photograph looks east into a newly decorated Lower Main Hall, or the Great Hall, of the Smithsonian Institution Building. Visitors pose in the center. The second floor galleries are clearly visible. The delicate stencil work on the ceiling is by architect Adolf Cluss, who following the repair of water damage in the Lower Main Hall, used the opportunity to enhance the walls and ceiling.

The Great Hall in 2015, looking West. Through the far doors are Schermer Hall and the Castle Commons.

Inside the Castle
Jamse Smithson's Crypt

Smithson's remains were brought to the United States by Smithsonian Regent Alexander Graham Bell in 1904, when the Protestant Cemetery in Genoa, Italy, where Smithson was buried, was to be moved.

Many plans were made for an elaborate memorial to the Institution's benefactor, but the lack of an appropriation dictated a more modest course. Smithson's marker from the Italian gravesite was incorporated into a room adjacent to the north entrance, and a gate was fashioned from pieces of the fence that had surrounded the site. Architects Hornblower and Marshall redesigned the room to give it a more somber classical feeling, replacing the ceiling, windows, and the floor.

Smithson's Crypt in 2015.

Inside the Castle
Children's Room

The Smithsonian was one of the first museums in the country to develop a special children's place during the early part of the 20th century. Convinced that museums could provide a fertile environment conducive to children as well as adults, then Smithsonian secretary Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906) converted a room on the first floor of the Smithsonian Institution Building's south tower into a gallery of natural history exhibits aimed specifically at children.

The Children's Room in 2015; now the South Entrance.

Inside the Castle
The West Cloister

The original cloister would have been behind the offices on the right. Schermer Hall is through the far door.

Inside the Castle
From West Range to Schermer Hall

The West Range in 1871, which had formerly served as part of the Gallery of Art, was arranged to display ethnological specimens of North American Indian workmanship along with artifacts from China, Japan, and prehistoric France for purposes of comparison. Along the arcades hang portraits depicting American Indian delegates, who visited Washington between 1858 and 1869, painted by United States National Museum artist Antonio Zeno Shindler. At the end of the hall hangs a large portrait of the French historian and statesman Francois Pierre Guillaume Guizot painted by George Peter Alexander Healey.

By 1871, the West Range had been fireproofed and redesigned in the Aesthetic style.

Schermer Hall in 2015

Inside the Castle
The Commons

The Castle Commons in 2015.

Smithsonian Castle Collection
Credits: Story

Images and Text from
Smithsonian Architectural History & Historic Preservation Division
Smithsonian Institution Archives

Compiled by
Marc Bretzfelder
Office of the Chief Information Officer
Smithsonian Institution

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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