The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Architecture
An 1847 decision by the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents and building committee led to unforeseen disastrous results. In order to reduce construction costs of the Smithsonian Building (now known as the Castle), architect James Renwick Jr’s plans for the interior were considerably altered by replacing iron beams and brick vaults with wooden columns and rafters.
On the evening of February 29, 1850, as the wooden structure was being erected inside what is now the Great Hall, the floor began to sink. Within seconds a huge portion of the structure collapsed into the basement. Miraculously, no one was injured although several people had just passed through the room on their way to the Library in the West Wing after attending a lecture in the East Wing. A special committee was established by the Regents to examine the cause of the collapse and it concluded that “…the interior of the main building is defective in the kind of materials originally adopted….” The Regents decided that the remaining wood structure would be removed and the interior rebuilt using more durable and fireproof materials as originally intended by the architect.
By late March, workmen were busily engaged in removing the damaged woodwork from the cavernous space. Twenty-six year old William H. Page, a sailor in the US Navy, was among them, working high atop a scaffold on the morning of March 29. Although forewarned that he was standing in a dangerous and precarious position, Page lost his balance and fell, striking his head on a large piece of timber. The National Intelligencer reported that he “… so dreadfully fractured his skull as to cause almost instant death.”
Page was buried in Congressional Cemetery on March 31 by the society of Odd Fellows. However, less than two and a half months later, according to cemetery records, a Miss Ann Page had his grave opened to have a child named Rebecca F. Smith buried with him. Could Ann have been William’s sister? The 1850 US Census for the District of Columbia lists an Ann Page, age 30, sharing a house with two other young women, Mary Allen, age 20, and S. Smith, age 35; could the little girl have been William’s daughter? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions might never be known. The census was recorded after both deaths and the reference to the relationship is itself circumstantial.
Page’s violent and tragic demise was the first death to occur within the building; the second in 1862 was Will Henry, the only son of Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, followed by scientist Fielding B. Meek in 1876 and finally by Henry himself in 1878. It is perhaps no wonder that the building is rife with ghost sightings and strange occurrences after the midnight hour. Some of the alleged sightings were thought to be of Meek, but most have been of James Smithson, the Institution’s benefactor and namesake, whose remains are interred in a specially constructed chamber at the north entrance to the building. Night watchmen have reported doors opening and closing by invisible hands, books moving off the shelves in the Library, and lights going on and off in the middle of the night while the building was closed and presumably uninhabited. Strange sightings, unseen presences, and ghostly screams heard in the building prompted one Castle staffer to host a séance or two in the Regents’ Room in the 1980s.
Stories have appeared in the local press as early as 1900 telling of strange footsteps in the lonely corridors of the building created by unseen feet while husky voices break the night stillness. Night watchmen at the time claimed that they came face to face with the spirits of both Joseph Henry and Spencer Baird still supervising the affairs of the Institution. To this day, guards and staffers alike continue to feel the presence of unseen individuals and to hear breathy utterances in offices, towers, and darkened hallways during and after hours.
Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Historic Pictures of the Smithsonian Institution Building, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Deconstructing a Mystery: Rare photo proves to be the earliest ever taken of the Smithsonian Castle, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
A Castle of Curiosities mobile app, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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- “The government must take the lead in reinvesting in the arts and humanities,” according to Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton. [via Washington Post]
- The Smithsonian made a 3D scan of Apollo 11 from the National Air and Space Museum. [via Washington Post]
- The Vatican projected a video of endangered animals on St. Peter’s Basilica to coincide with climate talks in Paris. [via The Guardian]
- The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum announced that all of Franklin D. Roosevelt's speeches are now available online. [via Info Docket]
- A tour of the Kodak Technology Vault at the George Eastman Museum. [via PetaPixel]
The Renwick Gallery was designed by architect James Renwick who also designed the Smithsonian Institution Building, known as the Castle. The gallery was commissioned by the wealthy banker William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888) to house his personal art collection. Construction began in 1859 and was nearing completion as the Civil War began in 1861.
A confederate sympathizer, Corcoran bankrolled much of the confederacy’s activities and fled to France. The building was then commandeered by the Union Army for office space. Corcoran returned to the US after the war was over, but was not allowed to open his gallery until 1874, and only as a public art gallery. It was the first public museum built in the nation’s capital. Corcoran’s collection soon outgrew the small building across from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, and he built a much larger museum nearby on 17th Street.
Renwick’s building was sold to the US government in 1901 and served for many years as the home for the US Court of Claims. During the 1960s, Pennsylvania Avenue underwent a redevelopment that looked at the state and use of historic buildings. Jacqueline Kennedy was concerned about the Renwick-designed building (which had been altered significantly when its grand spaces were chopped up into offices) as she sought to also restore the Lafayette Square area across from the White House. Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley toured the building and envisioned it as a unique outpost of the on-Mall Smithsonian. The gallery sits next to Blair House, the guest house for distinguished White House visitors. Ripley’s initial plan for the building was to display temporary exhibits related to the current international visitor to Blair House, highlighting the art, history and culture of his or her nation.
This Court of Claims building was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1966 and underwent significant restoration before it opened as a museum in 1972. However, the State Department proved uninterested in the link to Blair House and Ripley’s plan never came to fruition. The first director, Lloyd Herman, developed it into a museum of American craft. As he noted, the beautiful Renwick-designed building was a major part of the gallery’s exhibit. The gallery thrived as a home to American crafts and decorative arts, and was made part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The Renwick gallery reopened this past week after an extensive renovation, which included the restoration of its original vaulted ceilings on the second floor, re-creation of the building’s original window configuration, salvage and repair of its original moldings and wainscoting, and preservation of historic finishes. The heating, air conditioning, electrical, plumbing and fire-suppression systems were replaced. The security, phone and data communication systems were upgraded. The building’s basement was renovated for curatorial and staff offices, as well as art storage facilities. In the interior, an all-LED lighting system was installed. Wireless systems were also installed throughout the building to be used for both artist installations and visitor interpretation. On the exterior, bricks were repointed, stucco was repaired, and the roof was replaced.
The museum’s debut exhibition is Wonder, an immersive artwork by nine leading contemporary artists. Jennifer Angus, Chakaia Booker, Gabriel Dawe, Tara Donovan, Patrick Dougherty, Janet Echelman, John Grade, Maya Lin, and Leo Villareal are each taking over a gallery, creating site-specific installations inspired by the Renwick.
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