Graphical timeline from Smithson to Smithsonian
From Smithson to Smithsonian - The Birth of an InstitutionThe Smithsonian Building

Who Was James Smithson?
Sccepting Smithson's Gift
All-American Compromise
The Smithsonian Building
An Institution Emerges
A National Collection
Smithson's Legacy

A Building Worthy of Smithson's Gift

What was the relationship between the Act of Incorporation and the historic Smithsonian Building? The act provided for a building containing an:
James Renwick, Jr.
James Renwick, Jr.


  • art gallery
  • lecture hall
  • library
  • chemical laboratory
  • natural history laboratory
  • science museum

A building that housed the multiple functions such as Congress had assigned to the Smithsonian Institution did not exist in the United States in 1846. The Smithsonian Building Committee worked closely with noted architect James Renwick, Jr., to create a Smithsonian building that included an art gallery, a library, a chemical laboratory, lecture halls, and museum galleries.

Smithsonian Building, North Facade
Smithsonian Building,
North Facade

Smithsonian Building, South Facade
Smithsonian Building,
South Facade


Renwick designed the Smithsonian Building (now known as the Castle) in a medieval revival style intended to evoke the cloistered, scholarly atmosphere associated with venerable English colleges.

"Nor do I believe that any one . . . in looking upon that building, would mistake its character, or connect it . . . with other than a scientific or collegiate foundation."
—Robert Dale Owen, Chairman of the
Smithsonian Building Committee, 1849

The building's picturesque quality was heightened by the impression of asymmetry created by nine architecturally distinct towers and the stylistic contrast of the two wings: one a rectangular block with battlements and chimneys, the other chapel-like.

Completed in 1855, the building was at once impressive and controversial.

"The majority of Strangers who visit the city consider it a very beautiful edifice."
Smithsonian Institution Annual Report, 1853

"A monstrous pile of misshapen towers, arches, columns . . ."
—Dorothea Dix, social activist and friend of
Smithsonian Secretary, Joseph Henry, 1852

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