The Smithsonian Castle, a National Historic Landmark , is located in Washington, D.C. behind the National Museum of African Art.
Smithson was a British chemist, who bequeathed his fortune to the United States, which led to the creation of the Smithsonian Institution.
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.
The main Smithsonian visitor center is also located here, with interactive displays and maps. Computers electronically answer most common questions. A crypt just inside the north entrance houses the tomb of James Smithson.
The building is completed in the Gothic Revival style with Romanesque motifs. This style was chosen to evoke the Collegiate Gothic in England and the idea of knowledge and wisdom. The façade is built with red sandstone from Seneca, Maryland in contrast to the marble and granite from the other major buildings in Washington DC.
Construction & History
The Smithsonian Castle was designed by one of the most renowned architects of the era – Mr. James Renwick, Jr. – who was also responsible for New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Smithsonian art gallery that bears his name, where you’ll find fine American crafts and decorative arts from the nineteenth to twenty-first centuries.
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.
You’ll find a statue of Henry outside the castle and the crypt of Smithsonian founder, James Smithson, inside the north entrance to the castle.
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.
When it was completed, the Castle held offices, a lecture hall, library, chemical laboratory, natural history laboratory, art gallery, science museum, and archives. The museum didn’t truly expand outside this building until the 1960s.
In 1865 The Castle was partially destroyed by fire, which consumed the upper story of the main segment and the north and south towers. Twenty years later, the east wing was fireproofed, according to Smithsonian records, and additional administrative offices were added..
Touring the Castle
The castle is now the headquarters of the Smithsonian Information Center, a good place to stop before you embark on your multi-museum tour of the Smithsonian Institution. You’ll learn lots about the 16 various museums that are part of the complex via a short video presentation, maps, and brochures.