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The west end of the building, with its soaring single story halls and abundant natural light, was designed with the Institution's public functions in mind. The teaching college that Robert Dale Owen envisioned for the Smithsonian would have required many lecture halls. As designed by architect James Renwick, Jr., this grand, well-lit space was planned for such a use, with its rounded apse providing an admirable lecturer’s podium.
The high windows and skylights, which made the West Wing a successful design for a lecture hall, were also considered ideal for a gallery of art. Although the entire west end was designated as an art gallery in the 1849 plan, when it was completed the West Wing served as the Smithsonian’s library, and the West Range was adapted for use as a reading room. It was not until after the fire of 1865, when the Institution’s library collection was transferred to the Library of Congress, that the West Wing and Range were wholly dedicated to use as exhibition space.
Beginning with the displays of Mineralogy and concluding with those of Graphic Arts, the West Wing and Range provided educational exhibitions for over one hundred years. The renovation of the building in the late 1960s, combined with the erection of the Museum of History and Technology in 1964, represented a dramatic change for this area. The last museum exhibits in the building were removed, and the grand Gothic spaces of the west end were restored as communal gathering places. The dedication of this area to a lounge and dining room signaled the new status of the building as a visitors’ center.