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

Architectural Building Blocks

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."
Stone Capital
Stone Capital


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.
A Glossary of Terms...
A Glossary of Terms...


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."
-Robert Dale Owen, Chairman of the
Smithsonian Building Committee

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.

Denkmaehler der Deutschen Baukunst
Denkmaehler der
Deutschen Baukunst

The original Smithsonian Building had open walkways, or "cloisters," patterned after those found in medieval colleges. These cloisters were inspired by this illustration from a book on German medieval architecture. In the belief that the Smithsonian would become a teaching institution, the building's planners included cloisters in their early designs.

"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."
-Letter from David Dale Owen to his brother,
Robert Dale Owen, October 10, 1845

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