Smithsonian Sparks

Five architecture facts about the Arts and Industries Building

September 28, 2021
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Ceiling rotunda surrounded by windows

The central rotunda of the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building’s today. Photo by Farrah Skeiky

The next time you’re in the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building—which reopens in November with the “FUTURES” exhibition—see if you can spot the fossils in the floor. The building opened in 1881 as America’s first National Museum, with architecture that has dazzled visitors in the decades that followed.

Whether you’re looking up or down, visiting virtually or in person, explore these details about the building’s past as it prepares for its next chapter.

Large brick building
The Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building. Photo by Roy Blunt

An architectural time capsule inspired by world’s fairs

Architect-in-charge Adolf Cluss and his fellow engineers based the National Museum in part on the design of recently constructed international exposition buildings, including the 1876 Government Building in Philadelphia and the 1851 Crystal Palace in London. It was designed to complement the Smithsonian Institution Building (known as the Castle) in a modern way.

The Arts and Industries Building is considered one of the best-preserved examples of 19th-century world exposition architecture in the U.S.; it was named a National Historic Landmark in 1971.

The building is symmetrical and four-sided with a rotunda at its center. The rotunda is the tallest space at 108 feet.

Hall with large windows at one end, a balcony on the sides, and a tiled floor
South hall of the Arts and Industries Building. Photo by Roy Blunt

Ecofriendly before it was cool

The Arts and Industries Building was designed at a time in architectural history when engineering technologies were starting to change the way buildings were constructed. Cluss was dedicated to designing a sustainable, efficient and economical structure, using as many natural resources as possible.

The 19th-century equivalent of LEED certification included fresh air and natural light in every space and using building materials that were local to Washington, D.C., whenever available. The building’s wrought iron trusses were extremely effective in covering a maximum amount of space with the fewest materials. Brick cavity walls offered protection from moisture and space for insulation. Double-pane glass windows, not standard in the 1880s, also helped with insulation and filtered light. Shortly after the building opened, awnings were placed on many windows, which kept temperatures down inside during the D.C. summer.

Marble floor with black, white and red tiles. There is a spiral fossil in the center.
A fossil preserved in the marble floor of the Arts and Industries Building. Photo by Farrah Skeiky

Fossils in the floor

The floors in the main halls of the building date to 1881; they replaced the original, temporary, wood flooring that was installed for President James A. Garfield’s inaugural ball (the first event held in the space—before exhibits were installed). They are marble and limestone and laid in a decorative multicolored pattern. The marble, from a prehistoric quarry, was once undersea and trapped small marine life that you can see in a number of spots.

The floor in the rotunda, though fossil-less, is a replica of the 1881 historic floor and has a mix of octagonal, hexagonal and square-shaped tiles of varying colors.

Brick facade of a building. Text on the side: National Museum, 1879
A close look at the brick on the side of the Arts and Industries Building. Photo by Farrah Skeiky

The “Red Brick City”

With a few minor exceptions, the outside of the building looks very much the same today as it did when it was constructed.

Red is the dominant color of the façade. It matched the Castle and fit into the “Red Brick City.” Red brick was the building material of choice in Washington in the mid-to-late 19th century—it was considered modern, economical and (most importantly) fireproof.

The building’s brickwork is called polychrome because of its multiple colors. Yellow, blue and black bricks form decorative patterns. Black bricks were used in horizontal bands around the perimeter of the building. There’s also colored brick on the chimney at the corner of the southwest pavilion.

Detail of the roof of a red brick building, with a statue of three figures
"Columbia Protecting Science and Industry," a sculpture by Casper Burberl, at the north entrance of the Arts and Industries Building

A roof-top sculpture full of symbolism

In another reference to exposition architecture, the painted zinc sculpture over the north entrance is an allegorical piece representing “Columbia Protecting Science and Industry.”

“Columbia” is in the center of the group, wearing a starry tiara. “Science,” on the left, is depicted reading a book with an owl (symbol of wisdom) at her feet. “Industry,” seated to the right, holds a hammer and surveying instrument.

The sculpture is by Casper Burberl, who was born in what is now Czech Republic and immigrated to the U.S. in 1854. The Smithsonian also has six allegorical relief panels sculpted by Burberl in its National Portrait Gallery.