The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
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One hundred fifty years ago, the Smithsonian Institution was the site of a devastating fire that destroyed much of its early work. The Smithsonian was founded in 1846, using the bequest of Englishman James Smithson, to create an organization devoted to the increase and diffusion of knowledge. Less than twenty years later, its iconic Castle building erupted into flames on a bitter cold winter day. Workmen doing work in the Art Gallery on the second floor incorrectly installed a stove, inserting the stove pipe in a wall space rather then the flue out to the roof. For several days, hot embers spewed into the wooden attic floor and on the afternoon of the 24th, a huge fire erupted, leaving the Castle enveloped in a cloud of smoke. Reports focused on the destruction of the Smithsonian's treasures, such as art works, scientific specimens, Smithson's personal papers, and records of the Institution's early work. The Castle, at that time however, was also home to a number of people, and their lives were deeply affected by the fire.
Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry and his family lived in the east wing; Henry's wife Harriet, his three daughters Mary, Helen, and Caroline, and his son William. On a better day, the Henry family might be seen playing croquet in front of the Castle. Mary Henry described the fire and its aftermath in her diary. "Jan.25th I record in my journal tonight one of the of the momentous and saddest events of lives – the burning of a large portion of the Inst . . . I was sitting reading in the Library reading and surprised at the sudden darkening of the room went to the window and finding a thick cloud of smoke or mist obscuring the view I hastened from the room to discover the cause. One of the gentlemen from the Inst. met me saying 'the building is in flames you have but five minutes to save your property.' We immediately went to work packing books, etc. first clothing and then Father's library . . ."
Paleontologist Fielding B. Meek, an extremely introverted and deaf scholar, lived in a small apartment under the gallery stairs in the southeast corner of the lecture room. He had been working in an office on the second floor east wing, when the room suddenly grew very dark. He went to the windows thinking a snow storm had begun, only to find smoke swirling around the Castle. Meek ran for the water buckets that were kept at the ready in a lower piazza, near the document room, and grabbed several to assist with the fire. But he immediately realized that, on this bitterly cold day, the water in the buckets was frozen solid and useless. He saved what he could of his meager possessions and then ran to the study to remove manuscripts, drawings and books. Sadly, some of his few possessions were looted as they sat outside the burning building.
The day after the fire, Mary surveyed the damage: "The dismantled walls & towers rose high above us reminding us of the ruins of some English Abbey . . . We picked out way over the cinders & burnt bricks through the lecture room to the Picture Gallery. The remains of the dying gladiator lay scattered about – we picked up a few pieces but they crumbled in our fingers. The blue sky above us formed a beautiful roof but we dreaded storms . . . " Two men who helped with the evacuation of the building, explorer Lt. James Melville Gilliss and John Varden, who had founded an early museum in Washington, died within the next two weeks, probably due to their exertions. The fire occurred as the Civil War was coming to an end. The war had swirled around the Castle, and this additional trauma had a profound effect on all of those who lived and worked in the Smithsonian Castle. Eventually the building was repaired, programs reestablished and new artifacts collected, as the fire demonstrated that the Institution could survive severe challenges. Indeed, despite fires, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes; despite wars and government shutdowns, the Smithsonian has grown into the world's largest museum and research complex where work is done to help shape the future by ensuring the preservation of our heritage, through the discovery of new knowledge, and though the sharing of our resources with the world.
In November 2014, the Smithsonian Institution unveiled a proposed Master Plan for the South Mall Campus to be implemented over a 10 to 20 year period beginning in 2016. The South Mall Campus includes the Smithsonian Institution Building (better known as "The Castle"), the National Museum of African Art, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the Freer Gallery of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and a number of gardens located along Independence Ave between 7th and 12th streets.
Quite coincidentally, I recently came across some publicity materials related to the opening of Enid A. Haupt Garden. The Haupt Garden is a 4.2 acre space located on the south side of the Castle and one of the focal points of the Master Plan.
The Haupt Garden was conceived by Secretary S. Dillon Ripley and opened to the public on May 22, 1987 during the tenure of Secretary Robert McCormick Adams. The landscape design was a collaboration between architect Jean-Paul Carlihan, design firm Sasaki and Associates, landscape architect Lester Collins, and Smithsonian Horticulture Office Director James Buckler. The garden was named for philanthropist Enid Annenberg Haupt who contributed $3 million toward the project.
The Haupt Garden is actually a rooftop garden, 2 to 6 feet deep, above a subterranean structure known as the Quadrangle. The garden contains two pavilions and a kiosk which serve as entrances to the underground African Art Museum, the Sackler Gallery (featuring Asian art), and the S. Dillon Ripley Center (a meeting, exhibition, and office space). The three sections of the garden reflect the cultural influences celebrated in the adjacent architecture and museums. The eastern portion is a fountain garden influenced Moorish design. The western portion is inspired by Asian gardens with moon gates, two weeping cherry trees, and pools of water.
The central portion of the Haupt Garden exhibits 19th century influences in honor of the Smithsonian's roots and the Castle itself which opened in 1855. A colorful Victorian parterre has multicolored swags and ribbon beds which are changed with the seasons. Nineteenth century ornamental furniture, both antique and reproduction, from the Smithsonian's collections are displayed throughout the garden, including benches for visitor use. Reproductions of typical late 19th century American lampposts and fixtures line the paths. The main entrance features an elaborate carriage gate (the "Renwick Gate") based on an 1849 design by Castle architect James Renwick.
So what will happen to the Haupt Garden as the buildings around and below are revitalized? According the Master Plan Project Overview:
"The Haupt Garden is actually a green roof over the Quad and needs to be completely removed to correct chronic leaks. With the relocation of the Quad loading dock, the size of the Haupt Garden will be significantly increased. The new garden is likely to include more active, event spaces as well as areas of horticultural education and display and others for rest and contemplation."
- Record Uni 410 - Smithsonian Institution, Office of Public Affairs, Publicity Records, c. 1965-1974, 1987, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- No bones about it - The new app, Skin and Bones, from the National Museum of Natural History brings collections to life. [via Smithsonian Science]
- Happy 30th Birthday to the Getty Conservation Institute! [via The Getty Iris]
- Bibliophiles rejoice - Photographer Frank Bohbot, is embarking on a project to document the great libraries of the world. [via PetaPixel]
- Now complete - the University of Georgia Libraries improves access to more than 30 hours of rare videotaped interviews with former President Richard M. Nixon using the Oral History Metadata Snychronizer. [via InfoDocket]
- A unique set of object from the National Air and Space Museum's collections - Paul E. Garber's target kites. [via AirSpace, NASM]
- This is what you want . . . 10 minutes of real time book requests from the British Library. [via InfoDocket]
Before the Grand Canyon was made a National Park (1919) and before President Theodore Roosevelt placed the Grand Canyon under public protection by declaring it a national monument on January 11, 1908, the Smithsonian was interested in this natural wonder. In fact the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Joseph Henry wrote to Representative, later President of the United States, James A. Garfield in 1870 to urge that Congress fund John Wesley Powell's continued exploration of the Grand Canyon. Which they did with Congress appropriating $12,000 for Powell's expedition. Additionally in 1903 the fourth Smithsonian Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott and his family traveled to the Grand Canyon. In honor of this UNESCO World Heirtage Site are some images of the visits to the canyon by Powell and the Walcotts.
- Record Unit 7004 - Charles D. Walcott Collection, 1851-1940 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Record Unit 7177 - George P. Merrill Collection, circa 1800-1930 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
On December 5, 1961 the Smithsonian announced that Alice Pike Barney's Studio House was donated to the Smithsonian by her daughters Natalie and Laura Barney. Alice Pike Barney was an American painter born in 1857 in Ohio. During the late 1800s, she spent time in Paris where she studied painting and began a salon in the home she rented there. When Barney returned to her home in Washington, D.C., she put a lot of effort into turning the city into a center for the arts. She had solo shows at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and other major galleries. After her death in 1931, the Studio House became the property of her two daughters, who donated it to the Smithsonian in 1961. In 1976, the house was opened as part of the National Museum of American Art, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In April 1995 the Alice Pike Barney Studio House was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The house remained in the possession of the Smithsonian until 1999, and it now serves as the Embassy of Latvia in Washington, D.C.
- Barney House given to the Smithsonian, Chronology of Smithsonian History, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Summer Wind to Ban-y-Bryn, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 96-153 - Alice Pike Barney Papers, 1861-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives