The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
On this day in 1879 ground was broken for the construction of the United States National Museum building, now known as the Arts and Industries Building. Its concrete foundations were begun on April 29th and the brick-work of the walls on May 21st. The main walls would be completed by November 1st.
Closed to the public since 2004, the Arts and Industries Building began undergoing a repair and restoration project to fix and upgrade the exterior of the building in 2009. Unfortunately due to financial reasons, the building will not reopen at the end of 2014 as originally planned. It was to have held an interim program called Smithsonian Innovation Space, but after a year of program planning and financial review, the Smithsonian concluded that the cost of rehabilitating the building for public use and operating it exceeded its available funding sources at this time.
The exterior of the building has been structurally stabilized and the Smithsonian will continue to explore options to reopen the building, but it will remain closed to the public until further notice. For more information about the history and renovation of the Arts and Industries Building please see the video below.
- Arts and Industries Building, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Many people think of the National Mall in Washington, DC, as one long undifferentiated stretch of green from the base of Capitol Hill to the Washington Monument. In times past, however, parts of the Mall not only had specific names but were covered by structures unimaginable today, including a railroad station and train tracks. The plot bounded by Constitution Avenue on the north, Independence Avenue on the south, Sixth Street on the east and Seventh Street on the west is a good example.
Beginning in 1855, the Armory Building, built to store arms for the city's volunteer militia companies, occupied the southeastern corner of this twenty-two-acre area, which then became known as Armory Park or Armory Square. During the Civil War, the building anchored a hospital complex with multiple temporary structures. After the close of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, the Armory Building was used as temporary storage for exhibit materials transferred to the United States National Museum. It was later used by the US Fish and Fisheries Commission (1881-1932). The building stood on the site until 1964. The west end of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum (built 1972-1976) occupies the site today.
In 1887, the head of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds wrote Spencer F. Baird, secretary of the Smithsonian as well as head of the Fish Commission, to suggest renaming Armory Park in honor of Joseph Henry: "Among the eminent scientists of the present century, no man stood higher in every possible way, than your distinguished predecessor, Prof. Henry." Joseph Henry, a prominent physicist, had been elected in 1846 as the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and continued until his death in 1878.
Despite the renaming, the old name persisted. In 1913, fourth Smithsonian Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott described the site as Armory Square in reference to the proposed (but never built) George Washington Memorial Building, which was to border Constitution Avenue and be administered by the Smithsonian. Four years later, however, when temporary buildings for use of the army and navy departments began to cover the site, official documents referred to the location as Henry Park.
At the time of the renaming in 1887, the northern end of the site was dominated by the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station, which had been built in the mid-1870s, and a 510-ft.-long train shed that extended partway across the Mall. Tracks continued south across the Mall along Sixth Street. The station and tracks were abandoned in 1907 when Union Station was opened; the old station was demolished the following year. Clay tennis courts that had been installed beginning in 1916 were removed in 1936 to make way for the construction of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art (built 1937-1941). Complaints following the demolition of the tennis courts included one from E. Claude Babcock, president of the American Federation of Government Employees and also secretary of the Smithsonian Tennis Association.
A search of old issues of The Washington Post might lead one to conclude that the name "Henry Park" went out of existence with the tennis courts in the mid-1930s. But recently it seems to have resurfaced. A muggle Quidditch tournament was to be held in Henry Park in April 2011, before muddy conditions forced it to relocate. Those planning to attend comedian Jon Stewart's 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity were directed to "an area known (to someone, at least) as East Seaton Park and Henry Park, between 3rd and 7th streets NW on the Mall." In response, a commenter complained, "There is no East Seaton Park, and there is no Henry Park. In fact, people keep moving those labels around the Mall on the Google Maps. It's all the National Mall."
Despite that claim, Henry Park has appeared in the very official Geographic Names Information System, maintained by the United States Geological Survey, since 1991. The entry lists "Armory Grounds" as a variant name. If you follow the link under Mapping Services to "GNIS in Google Map," you will see a red balloon in the correct section of the Mall. But if you click the red balloon to see "feature detail," you are taken to a tiny Henry Park designated by an icon just southwest of the intersection of Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues near the West Wing of the National Gallery of Art. Might the wizards of Hogwarts have something to do with this transformation?
- Record Unit 7471 - George Washington Memorial Association, Records, 1890-1922, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Dian Olson Belanger, "The Railroad in the Park: Washington's Baltimore & Potomac Station, 1872-1907," Washington History, vol. 2, no. 1 (spring 1990), pp. 4-27.
- For information on Henry Park, see Kay Fanning, Cultural Landscape Inventory (Inventory Number 600213), 2006, pp. 12-20 (chronology), and 48 [graphic], and Historic American Buildings Survey No. DC-678, pp. 15, 18, 20, 36-38.
- For additional information on E. Claude Babcock, see Morgan Baker, "The Federal Diary," Washington Post, April 7, 1935.
- World Cup VII, International Quidditch Association
"Truth is stranger than fiction" is the adage that immediately came to mind when I stumbled across this odd bit of Smithsonian history. In 1848, first Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry helped write a proposal to create an International Board of Subterranean Exploration. This joint endeavor between the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and Belgium aimed to test Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s theory that the Earth’s core was molten. Additionally, the explorations would seek to uncover the magnetic condition of the earth’s crust and to analyze coal measures. Joseph Henry was noted for his pioneering research into magnetic phenomena, so this was a topic that interested him.
To begin their work, the commission decided the best way to explore the subterreanean parts of of our world would be to excavate a shaft into the center of Earth. The report stated that the committee selected a site in Bruges, Belgium, and commenced digging on April 10, 1849. For more than twenty years, men of science worked at the site drilling with diamond-pointed instruments and taking measurements of all kinds. They learned about magnetic forces and the make-up of the Earth’s crust. Then, one fateful November night in 1872 the project went up in flames! In the wee hours of the morning, men at the site heard a series of explosions. Waves of heat, thunderous sounds and ash erupted throughout the region. Soon, molten lava sprung from the shaft and destroyed everything in its wake.
The devastating results of this search for knowledge is almost hard to believe. In fact, I hope you didn't . . .
In truth, we did come across this bizarre article mentioning Joseph Henry. However, it turns out that this and several others like it are the collective writings of William Henry Rhodes, or “Caxton.” Rhodes, a lawyer by trade, wrote a series of science fiction hoaxes that were published in newspapers around the country. He first published a hoax piece, The Case of Summerfield, in 1871 in The Sacramento Union. This piece was written as a report on a man who threatened to set the world’s oceans on fire using chemicals unless he was paid one million dollars. For a few days people were in a state of panic until The Sacramento Reporter unveiled the story as a hoax and, for the most part, people were amused by the prank.
Rhodes continued to write and in 1872 produced the The Earth’s Hot Center. This time the hoax was presented as extracts from a report written by John Flannagan, United States Consul at Bruges, to the United States Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish. It told the harrowing tale of scientists going too far and creating a volcano in the middle of Belgium. Although parts of the story may seem fantastical today, Rhodes’ use of prominent names such as Henry, Fish, and Roderick Murchison, a noted Scottish geologist; organizations like the Smithsonian; and his understanding of the scientific theories prevalant at the time helped create a masterful story that initially hoodwinked his readership until the deception was revealed. Secretary Joseph Henry was quite a serious fellow, and we don’t know his reaction, but we hope he enjoyed this bit of notoriety.
P.S. The image of the “excavation site” is actually an image of the Parícutin volcano in Mexico in 1943 taken by Smithsonian curator of minerals William Foshag. The image of Henry . . . well, that is actually him.
- Caxton's Book: A Collection of Essays, Poems, Tales and Sketches, William Henry Rhodes, ed. Daniel O’Connell, (A. L. Bancroft and Company: San Francisco, CA) 1876.
- Caxton's Book: A Collection of Essays, Poems, Tales and Sketches, William Henry Rhodes, Introduction by Sam Moskowitz (Hyperion Press: Westpore, CT) 1974.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month at the Smithsonian, you might ask who was the first woman to secure a paid position at the Smithsonian? Jane Wadden Turner (1818- 1896) was appointed a library clerk in 1857 after being trained by her brother. The Robert Wadden and Elizabeth Jameson Turner family immigrated from England in 1818, with three children, Susan then ten, William Wadden then seven, and Jane Wadden only three months old. The family had some resources, but their father died in 1821 and their mother died in 1828, leaving the children to fend for themselves. Despite the challenges, the close-knit family stayed together and made a remarkable life for themselves in their new home. Susan, the oldest, always stayed at home and kept house for her two siblings, giving them the freedom to pursue intellectual careers and a life devoted to books.
William Wadden Turner (1811-1859) became a noted philologist and was trained as a librarian at Columbia College in New York City. He moved to Washington, DC, in 1852 to organize the library of the Patent Office and soon became a close friend of the Smithsonian’s Assistant Secretary Spencer F. Baird. His sisters soon followed and the household now included William’s wife and a growing family. The entire Turner family spent their Sundays and holidays at the Baird’s, part of the warm network of young scholars that Spencer and Mary Churchill Baird created in their home. In 1857, Baird asked William to assume responsibility for the Smithsonian library, and William delegated the task of preparing the catalogue to his sister Jane.
Family connections were one of the ways women were able to enter professional positions in the 19th century, and Jane Turner is a great example of that pattern. She was appointed a library clerk in 1858, and after her brother's early death in 1859, was placed in charge of the library. Secretary Joseph Henry wrote of her that she "vindicates by her accuracy and efficiency the propriety of employing her sex in some of the departments of the government."
After a devasting fire in the Smithsonian Castle in 1865, Henry transferred the Smithsonian Library to the Library of Congress in 1866. Jane Turner then served as assistant to A. R. Spofford, Librarian of Congress. She also was clerk in charge of the Smithsonian’s International Exchange Service from 1866 to 1869. Turner oversaw the distribution and exchange of scientific publications with 1,744 institutions in twenty-six countries. Turner's position, however, did not entail supervising men. When the Institution recruited another person to handle the ever growing International Exchange Service in 1885, one Smithsonian administrator wrote: "I have a full appreciation of the merits, business capacity, and efficiency of women, as is shown by the fact that our present librarian is a 'female of that sex'; but the place I refer to may grow to be a controlling one, covering several extensive departments which could not well be subordinated to a woman." The glass ceiling was cleary put up early in Smithsonian history.
After Henry’s death in 1878, the Institution's library began to grow again and Ms. Turner resumed the duties of Smithsonian Librarian in 1882 until 1887 when she resigned after a reorganization of the Library by the new Secretary, Samuel P. Langley. After Turner's retirement, a woman was not appointed Chief of the Smithsonian Library until 1942, during World War II, when Leila Gay Forbes Clark was placed in charge.
- Record Unit 7098 - Biographical Information File, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- In Memoriam - Jane Wadden Turner, Open Library
- Smithsonian Institution Libraries history, Smithsonian Institution Archives