The Castle in Washington

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I know Spring is just around the corner in Washington when the magnolias behind the Smithsonian Castle bloom. The red turreted Castle, the administrative center of the largest museum complex in the world, is an architectural oddity on the National Mall.

The Castle is the Smithsonian’s original building and stands halfway between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Designed by noted architect James Renwick, who later built St. Patrick’s Cathedral in midtown Manhattan, the building was  completed in 1855. Though only in his 20s at the time, Renwick won the design competition and his new building was an early example of Medieval Revival. Its eight distinct towers rise from an asymmetrical layout.  Just inside the north doors sits a crypt with Smithsonian benefactor James Smithson‘s remains brought from Italy by Alexander Graham Bell. Smithson is the only known person laid to rest on the Mall. The Castle is both a visitor center and the Institution’s administrative nerve center. It was also the home for the Smithsonian’s first leader, Joseph Henry, and his family.

During the Civil War, the towers of the Castle, tallest spot around because the Washington Monument was not completed, offered an excellent spot to watch troop movement. President Lincoln visited Secretary Joseph Henry and climbed a tower to look at the enemy across the Potomac River. Mary Henry, the Secretary’s daughter kept a diary and on July 16, 1861 she wrote “We went up into the high tower to see the troops pass over into Virginia.” Henry happened to be friends with both President Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States.

The saddest day in the building’s history was January 24, 1865. Only ten years old, the building caught fire and one observer said the flames leaped from the turrets like volcanoes. Among the items lost in the fire were a collection of items owned by the  Smithson. Thanks in large part to the fire, the mystery of why Englishman Smithson left his money to America to found the Smithsonian Institution continues.

Smithsonian Institution Building After Fire

Smithsonian Institution Building After Fire, 1865, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Many people don’t know that in the late 1880s, visitors to Washington could view buffalo grazing in a yard behind the Smithsonian Castle. William Temple Hornaday, a taxidermist employed by the Museum, collected several animals out west to serve as living models for the taxidermists who prepared exhibits. It was widely believed, correctly as it turned out, that buffalo would soon be extinct due to hunting.  His goal in part was to educate people about buffalo and foster an interest in environmental conservation. In 1887 several thousand people a day were visiting the buffalo and this popularity led to the birth of another well-loved Washington institution.  In 1889 President Cleveland signed a bill establishing the National Zoo, a unit of the Smithsonian.  Unfortunately, today the zoo does not keep any buffalo.

Buffalo Behind Smithsonian Institution Building

Buffalo Behind Smithsonian Institution Building, 1887, Smithsonian Institution Archives

In August 1996 the Smithsonian celebrated its 150th anniversary with a fireworks display that seemed to light the Castle on fire once again. While I’ve seen the magnolias in the Castle garden bloom many times and have seen the Castle coated in a layer of snow, the grand display of fireworks behind the Castle will forever be etched in my memory.

Did you attend the 150th? Share your memories. Thoughts about the Castle? Please share them.

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at or
This entry was posted in 19th century, 20th century, art and culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Have you visited this place? Share your experience.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s