Essential Architecture- Washington D.C.

Smithsonian Institution


James Renwick


Washington, D.C. > The Mall


1846-55 (W: 1848-49)


faux Norman style (a 12th-century combination of late Romanesque and early Gothic motifs) NeoRomanesque


red sandstone


  view from northeast, lithograph, 1849, from Robert Dale Owen, Hints on Public Architecture (New York, 1849), pl. opp. 104. and north elevation by Renwick, 1848, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Bates
  oblique view from southwest, photograph ca. 1903, Detroit Publishing Co. (no. 016514), Library of Congress. and oblique view from northeast, photo J. Howe.
  view from the northwest, Photograph, 1867-1884, Smithsonian Institution (negative #29978)
  interior view of the West Wing, Photograph, 1898-1911, Smithsonian Institution (negative #16876) and Great Hall, Photograph, 1992, Richard W. Strauss, Smithsonian Institution (negative #92-16586).
  apse on west end of north front, photo 1993, M. Brack and plans, from Robert Dale Owen, Hints on Public Architecture (New York, 1849), pl. opp. 105.

"The Castle"

The Smithsonian Institution Building, located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., houses the Smithsonian Institution's administrative offices and information center. The Building is constructed of red 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 the first Smithsonian building, completed in 1855 by architect James Renwick, Jr., whose other works include St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City and the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in D.C. Over the years, several reconstructions have taken place. The first followed a disastrous fire on January 24, 1865, which destroyed most of 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. Remodeling from 1968 to 1969 restored the building to the Victorian atmosphere reminiscent of the era during which it was first inhabited.

This building served as a home for the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry, and his family and for many years housed all aspects of Smithsonian operations, including an exhibit hall from 1858 until the 1960s. In 1901, Washington's first children's room was installed in the Castle's South Tower Room where the original decorated ceiling and wall stencils were restored in 1987. Located inside near the north entrance is the crypt of James Smithson, benefactor of the Institution, while outside on the Mall, a bronze statue of Joseph Henry, executed by William Wetmore Story, honors the scientist who was the Institution's first Secretary. In 1996, as the Smithsonian celebrated its 150th anniversary, a bell was added. Although Renwick had intended for a bell in his original plan, there was not enough money to add it to the Castle. It now chimes hourly.

Today, the Smithsonian Castle acts as the 'brain' of the Smithsonian, in that it houses all the administrative offices and carries out all Smithsonian operations. In addition, the main Smithsonian visitor center is also located here, with interactive displays and maps. The computers electronically answer most common questions.


Smithsonian Institution Building official site