Happy Birthday to the Smithsonian

Since today is the Smithsonian’s 167th birthday, here’s an adaptation of a previous post I wrote about the Smithsonian Castle in Washington.

The Smithsonian exists because of the generous and somewhat odd gift of a British scientist, James Smithson, who never set foot on American shores. Smithson’s will, written in 1826, named his nephew as beneficiary. A short clause at the end stipulated that, should the nephew die without heirs, the estate should go “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Smithson passed away in 1829 and six years later, his nephew died without children. The Smithson money ended up in the care of the executors. After three years of lawsuits and legal proceedings, U.S. Emissary Richard Rush disembarked from the ship Mediator in New York with one hundred and five sacks of gold sovereigns packed into boxes—half a million dollars or the rough equivalent of $50 million today.

Former president John Quincy Adams, then a congressman and chair of the House committee that would debate the outcome of the gift, did not have a lot of confidence in his colleagues in Congress. “Whether this bequest will ever come to anything is much doubted by almost everyone,” he wrote in 1836. “I proceed with a heavy heart from a presentiment that this noble and most munificent donation will be filtered to nothing and wasted upon hungry and worthless political jackals.”

Arguments over what to do with the gift lasted eleven years, the subject of over four hundred discussions in the Senate and fifty-seven in the House. The many ideas to satisfy the terms of the bequest included a national school, an agricultural college with a working farm, a great national library, and a scientific institution. Finally the proponents of science won out and seventeen years after Smithson’s death, Congress passed an act, signed by President James Polk on August 10, 1846, establishing the Institution.

snowy Washington 007

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. [Here’s a post about another event on the Mall that Mary wrote about]

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.

Thoughts about the Castle? Please share them.

Two excellent books about James Smithson and the early days of the Smithsonian are Nina Burleigh’s, The Stranger and the Statesman and Heather Ewing’s, The Lost World of James Smithson.

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: timgrove.net - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: grovehistoryconsulting.com 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 tim@grovehistoryconsulting.com or authortimgrove@gmail.com
This entry was posted in 19th century, 20th century, art and culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Happy Birthday to the Smithsonian

  1. Nancy Roebke says:

    I loved the castle as a kid coming to DC from WI. It is a testimony the the past that the Smithsonian has kept it useful and explained to the public. Thanks, Tim, for the post.

  2. Katy says:

    It was visiting NMAH as a 7th-grader in 1982 that inspired me to pursue a career in museums! At that time, they displayed the SSB front and center, right when you walked in. I entered and was awestruck…and immediately said in my head, “I am working here someday!” True story!

    Great set of museums; great legacy to our country.

  3. Pingback: Top 10 history sites in Washington, D.C. | historyplaces

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