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Smithsonian Castle, Washington DC,


Chester, United Kingdom

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Artist's Description

Taken with Canon EOS 450D and edited in Photomatix

The Smithsonian Castle, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. behind the National Museum of African Art, houses the Smithsonian Institution’s administrative offices and information center. The building is constructed of red Seneca sandstone in the faux Norman style (a 12th-century combination of late Romanesque and early Gothic motifs) and is appropriately nicknamed The Castle. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965.


The Castle was the first Smithsonian building, begun in 1847 by architect James Renwick, Jr., whose other works include St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery, also in Washington D.C. Renwick was selected by a unanimous vote following a design competition in 1846. A cardboard model of Renwick’s successful design survives. Renwick was assisted by Robert Mills,3 particularly in the internal arrangement of the building.

A statue of Joseph Henry is displayed in front of the building.
Initially intended to be built in white marble, then in yellow sandstone, the architect and committee finally settled on red Seneca sandstone from the vicinity of Seneca Creek in Montgomery County, Maryland. The sandstone was substantially less expensive than granite or marble, and while initially easy to work, was found to harden to a satisfactory degree on exposure to the elements. The East Wing was completed in 1849 and occupied by Secretary Joseph Henry and his family. The West Wing was completed later the same year. A structural collapse of partly completed work in 1850 raised questions of workmanship and resulted in a change to fireproof construction. The exterior was completed in 1851. By 1852 Renwick’s work was completed and he withdrew from further participation. Gilbert Cameron took over responsibility for interior work, and all work was finally completed in 1855.
Despite the upgraded construction, a fire in 1865 caused extensive damage, destroying the correspondence of James Smithson, Henry’s files, two hundred oil paintings of American Indians by John Mix Stanley, and the contents of the public libraries of Alexandria, Virginia and Beaufort, South Carolina, confiscated by Union forces during the American Civil War. The ensuing renovation was undertaken by local Washington architect Adolph Cluss in 1865-67. Further fireproofing work ensued in 1883, also by Cluss, who by this time had designed the neighboring Arts and Industries Building. A third and fourth floor were added to the East Wing, and a third floor to the West Wing. Electric lighting was installed in 1895.3
Around 1900 the wooden floor of the Great Hall was replaced with terrazzo and a Children’s Museum was installed near the south entrance. A tunnel connected to the Arts and Industries Building. A general renovation took place in 1968-70 to install modern electrical systems, elevators and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.
This site was one of the settings in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.

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