Baird's biggest break came when Secretary Henry appointed him to the interagency committee to prepare the government exhibits for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. The Congressional plan for the government exhibit in Philadelphia had an interesting provision. It stated that the appropriation was to be considered a LOAN to the exposition directors. If income from the exposition was sufficient for the loan to be repaid, Congress would then allow part of those funds to be used to construct a National Museum Building. This tantalizing possibility seems to have motivated Baird to do his very best.
Smithsonian exhibit at the Centennial
Exposition in Philadelphia, 1876
Assisted by his talented young curator, George Brown Goode, Baird produced all the government exhibits.
His award winning displays received great public acclaim and gave the Smithsonian national visibility. The Smithsonian exhibit consisted of two parts, the first section was on the Smithsonian's research programs. The second section had National Museum exhibits on the ethnology and natural history of North America. The government exhibition was considered by many to be the most successful part of the immensely popular Centennial. At its close, Baird convinced many exhibitors to donate their artifacts and specimens to the National Museum, acquiring some 62 boxcars of materials in 4000 cartons. Baird was given temporary use of the Armory Building on the Mall, situated conveniently along railroad tracks. And since the Centennial did make a profit, Congress made it clear that a request for a museum building would be entertained.
The Armory Building
When Secretary Henry died on May 13, 1878, Baird was named the second Secretary. He lost no time in going to Congress, and on March 3, 1879, $250,000 was appropriated for his National Museum.
Baird did not want to spend time or money on a monumental structure. He proposed instead a simple building similar to the government exhibit building at the Centennial Exposition designed by General Montgomery C. Meigs. No wood was to be used in construction, ensuring that the building would be fireproof, avoiding another disaster like the 1865 Castle fire. Baird fought successfully to have the building placed next to the Castle, despite concerns that it would obstruct the view of that building. He argued that operating a distant facility was far too costly in terms of staff and operating costs, even requiring new sewer lines. Designed by architects Cluss and Schulze, ground was broken on April 17th. Baird assembled a distinguished Building Committee that included General Meigs and General William Tecumseh Sherman. Baird and his building committee worried over every detail of construction. The building was completed by 1881, on schedule and within budget. Per square foot, it was the cheapest permanent government building ever built. It had 80,000 square feet of exhibit space.
The Arts and Industries Building
under construction, 1879