The Smithsonian Institution Building , Washington DC

The Smithsonian’s Castle
Photo courtesy of the DC SHPO

The Smithsonian Institution Building, a National Historic Landmark, was designed by the prominent New York architect, James Renwick, Jr., who would later design the Renwick Gallery (originally the Corcoran Gallery of Art) in Washington, and erected on the Mall between 1847 and 1855. Chartered by Congress in 1846, the Smithsonian was established due to the generous bequest of approximately $500,000 by James Smithson, an English scientist and illegitimate son of the Duke of Northumberland. Its Congressional charter established a Board of Regents who were directed to construct a “suitable building of plain and durable materials and structure, without unnecessary ornament, and of a sufficient size, and with suitable rooms or halls, for the reception and arrangement, upon a liberal scale of objects…” The items to be exhibited were specifically confined to the fields of natural history, art and objects of “foreign and curious research.”

The first Secretary of the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry, lived in the east wing of the building with his family, starting in 1849, during the initial construction period. For many years the building, also known as the Castle, housed all of the Smithsonian operations, including an exhibit hall from 1858 until the 1960s. Over the years several reconstructions have taken place. The first followed a fire on January 24, 1865, which destroyed the upper story of the main segment and the north and south towers. In 1884, the east wing was fireproofed and enlarged to accommodate more offices.

Smithsonian Institution, interior of Joseph Henry’s living room, east wing of the original Castle.
Historical Society of Washington, DC

Today, the Castle houses the Institution’s administrative offices and the Smithsonian Information Center. Located inside near the north entrance is the crypt of James Smithson, benefactor of the Institution, while outside on the Mall, a bronze statue, executed by William Wetmore Story, honors Joseph Henry. The Smithsonian is composed of 16 museums and galleries and the National Zoo and numerous research facilities in the United States and abroad, holding some 140 million artifacts and specimens in its trust. Nine Smithsonian museums are located on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. A three-level underground building houses two museums of African and Asian Art and the S. Dillon Ripley Center, which includes the International Gallery, offices, and classrooms. Five other museums and the Zoo are elsewhere in Washington, DC, and both the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian are in New York City.


The Smithsonian Institution Building is located at 1000 Jefferson Dr., SW. It is open every day of the year, except December 25th, from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm. Extended summer hours are determined annually. Metro stop: Smithsonian