A peek into our collections, one object at a time

The Castle Under Construction

August 7, 2015
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Smithsonian Castle under construction, 1850
Smithsonian Castle Collection

Happy birthday to us! The Smithsonian turns 169 today, and to celebrate, we thought we’d share a photo from our younger days—a baby picture, if you will.

President James K. Polk signed the legislation creating the Smithsonian Aug. 10, 1846. Once the legislation was signed, one of the first tasks facing its governing body was to erect a building to house the new Institution. Less than nine months later, the cornerstone of the Smithsonian Institution Building, now called the Castle, was laid May 1, 1847. Architect James Renwick designed the building in a medieval revival style, which was meant to identify the Smithsonian as an educational institution.

This photo was taken in 1850 during the Castle’s construction and is the earliest-known image of the building. The photograph shows the two completed wings of the building: The east wing housed the lecture hall, laboratories and home for the Secretary of the Smithsonian; the west wing contained the library and the reading room. The central portion of the building, now called the Great Hall, was still empty and would remain so until 1855. At the time of this photograph, only two of the Castle’s nine towers were completed. The crane in the image rises over the North Tower, which would eventually soar 140 feet above the National Mall.

Brothers William and Frederick Langenheim of Philadelphia took the photograph using a new process they developed in 1849 and called hyalotype (from the Greek hyalos, meaning glass, and typos, meaning image or impression). This process produced a glass negative instead of the paper negative of the talbotype process. The glass negative could then be used to print either paper photographs or glass lantern slides.

This rare hyalotype was a gift to the Smithsonian Castle Collection by Tom Rall of Arlington, Va., through Paula Fleming, retired Smithsonian photo archivist.

The photograph is on view in the Smithsonian Castle.