Renwick used several architectural design books as inspiration for the building's carved details but copied none exactly. The building's planners hoped to instill a desire in American architects to become more than mere imitators of style, advising against "implicit copyings" and "servile reproductions."
Of the hundreds of carved capitals on the Smithsonian Building, only a very few exactly match one another. All shared similar naturalistic design motifs of intertwining leaves, vines, and scrolls.
This 1838 English dictionary of architectural terms is the first book purchased for the Smithsonian Institution library. The margin note is in Robert Dale Owen's handwriting:
"We want an oriel window in the Norman Style."
The south tower in the center of the Smithsonian Building featured
an oriel window. This protruding bay window was inspired
by the illustration in this book.
"The cloisters, or piazzas, connecting the principal building with the extreme wings … will furnish an agreeable promenade for students, professors & visitors, in wet or hot weather."
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