North view of the Smithsonian Castle

Smithsonian Institution Building (The Castle)

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Did you know that the Castle is the Smithsonian’s first and oldest building? It first opened its doors in 1855 and has witnessed countless moments in American and world history.

The Castle closed February 1, 2023, for its first major renovation in more than 50 years. All elements of the building will undergo extensive repairs and upgrades. The renovation is expected to last about five years.

While the Castle is closed, join one of our Castle Docents for a live Castle talk and meet some of the people who shaped the early Smithsonian. Learn about the founding and early history of the Smithsonian and its original benefactor, James Smithson. Discover the incredible history and architecture of the Castle, and explore the Castle Collection online.

Castle History

Part 1 The Castle: An Abbreviated History

Before the Smithsonian’s establishment in 1846, there were several ideas about what the Institution should be, as well as what its first building should hold.

All were based on a bequest by James Smithson, which mandated the founding of “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

To learn more about James Smithson and his mysterious bequest to the United States, join one of our Castle docent tours!

The Board of Regents, the Smithsonian’s governing body, held an architectural competition to design the building.

Rather than the classical style of numerous U.S. government buildings, the Regents’ wished for a medieval revival style to establish the distinction between the Smithsonian and other government structures.

This same style can be seen in colleges such as England’s Oxford University, where James Smithson attended.

There were 13 submissions to the competition and 28-year-old architect James Renwick Jr. was selected in January 1847.

Surprisingly, prior to his selection as architect, Renwick wasn’t really known for designing any notable buildings.

Today however, Renwick is known for designing St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Grace Church, both in New York City.

He also designed the building that now houses the Renwick Gallery here in D.C.!

This paper model was created by Renwick and was found in the Castle attic during the early 1970s, when the Castle was undergoing renovations.

The model looks different from the actual completed building in a few ways.

Can you tell the difference?

There’s an extra floor, an extra tower, and the color is different!

The Smithsonian Castle is made from red sandstone quarried in Seneca, Maryland.

This design choice further illustrates how the Smithsonian Castle is different from the other light-colored, classically styled government buildings on the National Mall.

Nineteen years after the Smithsonian was first established in 1846, on January 15, 1865, caretaker John Varden was working in the picture gallery (currently called the Castle Library),

to mount paintings on the walls.

He complained that it was too cold to work, so a large stove was moved into the gallery space.

When setting it up, the stovepipe was inserted into what was believed to be a flue, but it was instead an air space in the wall’s brick lining.

The stove was lit, and for the next week, as John worked on hanging the paintings, smoke and embers collected in the space under the roof.

On January 24th disaster struck: the embers caught fire.

Barrels of water were stored outside the building for such an occasion; however, due to the frigid temperatures of January, they were all frozen!

Much was lost, including James Smithson’s original papers and letters.

Within 3 days, a temporary roof was constructed to protect the collections.

Five years later, Congress appropriated $20,000 for reconstruction in 1870.

The International Exchange Service was established in 1848 and distributed scientific publications to American and foreign institutions, government departments, societies, and individuals around the world.

It was located on the first floor until 1893, when a suite of dark, damp rooms in the basement was renovated into well-lit, comfortable offices to which they relocated.

The shipping rooms were immediately adjacent to the offices of the International Exchange Service in the basement below the main hall.

Hundreds of thousands of packages annually moved in and out of those cramped quarters; at its peak during the postwar decades of the 1950s and 1960s well over a million packages were processed each year.

The International Exchange Service moved to the Arts and Industries building in 1966 and the basement offices were converted into laboratories for the Division of Radiation and Organisms, which studied photomechanisms in plants.

After those labs moved to Rockville, MD, in 1970, the offices were reassigned to the Smithsonian’s Office of Protection Services; where they remain today. In 2001, the employee food-service space, which occupied several rooms on the other side of the hallway, was renovated expanded, and renamed the Castle Staff Deli.

A new seating area for the deli was created from the old exchange offices.

Additional amenities have been added, such as the credit union, vending machines, a broiler room, and the kitchens!

Much like in the past, much of the present-day basement is also used for storage.


Part 2 The Castle: An Abbreviated History

The main building of the Castle was designed to hold the Institution’s public facilities, such as the library, lecture halls, and museum.

From the beginning, the lower main hall was intended to be used as a public area.

When the space was first finished, it was filled with exhibitions of natural history specimens.

Although no legislation governing it had been passed by Congress, the term “National Museum” was unofficially adopted for the collections exhibited in the Lower Main Hall beginning about 1859.

The original collections eventually grew to fill three additional Smithsonian museums.

With the launching of each new museum and the removal of collections from the building, the use of the Castle’s main hall space was reconsidered.

After the first National Museum (now called the Arts and Industries Building) was opened in 1881, the exhibition space was divided between curatorial and public functions.

The completion of the Natural History Museum in 1911 prompted the hall’s conversion into a library, with related graphic arts displays sharing the space.

The hall was again cleared in the 1960s, when the graphic arts displays were moved to the newly erected National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History).

A public information center was then created in the space and a new name, the Great Hall, was adopted.

The information center was refined and updated over the next twenty years with exhibitions emphasizing the origins and development of both the Smithsonian and Washington, D.C.

Foreign dignitaries, heads of state, and cultural figures were received here throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

In the 1980s, the renovated Great Hall became the official home of the Visitor Information and Associates Reception Center and still serves as the gateway to the entire Smithsonian.

In 1992, a gift shop was added the Great Hall’s northeast quadrant, followed in 2003 by a cafeteria occupying one of the former theater spaces.

Its tables and chairs spill out into the Hall's southeast quadrant.

The West Wing and West Range (now known as the Commons and Schermer Hall) were ideal for a gallery of art, as designated in the 1849 plan for the building; however, when the Castle’s west end was completed, the West Wing instead housed the Smithsonian library, and the adjoining range was furnished as a reading room.

It was not until the fire of 1865, after which the Smithsonian's library was transferred to the Library of Congress, that the West Wing and West Range were wholly dedicated to use as exhibition spaces.

These two spaces provided educational exhibitions for more than 100 years.

With the completion of the Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History) in 1964, the last museum exhibitions remaining in the Castle were removed.

The subsequent renovation in the late 1960s allocated the grand Gothic spaces of the West Wing and West Range for use as communal gathering places for scholars, staff, and visitors.

In the 1970s, the West Wing was designated as a dining room and a lounge reserved for use by scholars as a social center and was renamed the Commons, a term used for the dining halls at English medieval colleges.

For the next 33 years, it was used as a dining hall, until the Commons restaurant closed in 2003.

The West Wing reopened to the public in 2004 with the exhibition, America’s Treasure Chest, featuring refurbished 19th-century display cases filled with artifacts from all the Smithsonian's museums.

While the Commons was used as a dining room, the West Range (Schermer Hall) provided additional dining-room seating and a space for lectures and evening receptions.

When the Commons was converted back into an exhibition hall in 2004, Schermer Hall also received a makeover, and in 2006 the display cases you can see today were installed.

Fun fact: in 1914, repair work to the Star-Spangled Banner was done in the Commons.

Part 3 The Castle: An Abbreviated History

This first-floor room was originally  intended by James Renwick to be a vestibule, but it instead became part of the lower  main hall’s museum when it was completed.

In 1899, Secretary Samuel P. Langley began  preparations to convert the entire room for the “purpose of bringing together there, in a  simple and attractive manner, objects which may  

be of interest to children.” Langley explained his  intent plainly, “It must be a cozy, pleasant room with plenty of light and pretty things, as well  as a collection of specimens not many in number  

but each object chosen just to give the child  pleasure.” The notion to create the Children’s Room is significant because it is one of the first  spaces in any museum to be dedicated to children.

Low glass-front exhibit cases were added  to encircle the room at a child's eye level. A massive table in the center held  a large aquarium with colorful fish, which, like the exotic birds in the cages above,  were meant to inspire in a child wonder for  

the beauty of nature. Exhibition labels were  written in English rather than the academic Latin that the other museum labels used.  This made them more accessible to children.  

Other cases held such wonders as the largest and  smallest birds of prey, the smallest and largest eggs of the world, the largest lump of gold  ever found, and the largest diamond ever cut.

All objects were chosen to support the theme  of the room, which was painted above the south entrance: “Knowledge Begins in Wonder.” The hope  was that after a visit to this special place, “the  

child goes home at last, glad, and with knowledge,  and the love of knowledge, in his heart. He is happy, and, because [his curiosity] has been  aroused, he has learned.” This same phrase is now above Wegman’s Wonderplace, the children’s  space in the National Museum of American History.

By 1941, the Children’s Room  was painted over and used for exhibitions to complement those in the main  hall. After restoration with the original Children’s Room decorative elements,  it reopened to the public in 1989.

Early in its history, the Castle’s north portion  was considered as part of the National Mall and in 1883 the statue of first Secretary Joseph Henry  was erected. The south yard of the Castle was thought of as the building’s back yard.  Landscaping around the Castle turned what had been an open field into a serene, wooded  park. Space in the Castle soon became scarce,  

and the Smithsonian began constructing  small buildings for laboratories, workrooms, and storage in the back yard. By the late 19th and  early 20th centuries, this area next to a bustling thoroughfare (now Independence Ave) was called  the South Yard, and it resembled a small village.  

In 1884, a temporary structure was built as a  workshop for preparing objects for exhibition. 

Part of this preparation was the taxidermy of  animals, such as tigers, pigeons, and bison. 

One taxidermist, named William Temple Hornaday,  requested the donation of live animals so he could study their forms. As a result, another shed was  built to house the animals. That small shed opened to the public and became extremely popular, which  led to more animals and more sheds being added.  

Hornaday eventually urged Congress  to establish a National Zoo; enabling legislation which passed in  1889. The animals in the South Yard were then relocated to Rock Creek Park where  the National Zoological Park remains today.

Rockets and spacecraft were displayed in the South  Yard starting in the 1950s until the National Air and Space Museum could be constructed  to house them properly. During this time, the area was called Rocket Row. After  this, the South Yard was cleared and was transformed into a Victorian garden  complimenting the Castle’s architecture.

In 1979, plans began for a vast, three-story,  underground museum and study center to be built in the South Yard. After four years of  construction, in 1987 the new and improved South Yard was revealed, opening the Arthur M. Sackler  Gallery and the National Museum of African Art.  

Atop these museums laid the four-acre Enid. A  Haupt garden, which is perhaps the country's largest green roof. The garden and the  museum complex below remain there today.

In this room lies James Smithson, the founding  benefactor of the Smithsonian. He died in Genoa, Italy, and never visited the United States.  His tale involves a mysterious bequest and a voyage with inventor of the telephone,  Alexander Graham Bell. To learn more about this and other Smithsonian tales (like another  fire!), attend one of our Castle docent tours!

From the Castle Collections and Archives