When the Smithsonian Institution Building, or “Castle,” was built in 1846, the Smithsonian only existed on congressional stationary and its future was unclear. The struggle to design a building to represent that Institution created an intellectual battleground where each side had its generals, squared off and fighting to determine this lasting legacy.
Robert Dale Owen, a member of the House of Representatives and Smithsonian Board of Regents, plunged into the design planning with a fervor that Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, diagnosed as “architecture mania.” As a long time advocate for equal opportunity and public education, Owen thought the Smithsonian should be a national free thinking university that “must reach the minds and hearts of the masses,” and he imagined that “over the entire land must rills from this sacred fountain freely flow.” In the end, Congress decided that the directive “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge” would be better served by a research institute, library, and museum, but Owen continued to impart his values to the Institution through its architecture. He was the first person who envisioned it as a Romanesque castle of lofty towers that would “occasion such awful grandeur and sublime sensation in the mind of the astonished beholder.”
For his part, the architect James Renwick Jr. was inspired by Owen’s vision, saying that the Romanesque style was “the only one in which there is any hope for genius at the present day.” The design might have gone ahead without anyone to contradict the Owen/Renwick “clique,” except that Secretary Henry was appointed to oversee its construction.
Henry wanted the Smithsonian to be an institution for scientific research. As its first Secretary he strove to focus most of the Institution’s resources on practical support for the sciences, and he saw Renwick’s design of the Castle as a great lapse of rationality that the Institution could literally not afford. In his efforts to see the Smithsonian defined by rationality and scientific pursuits, Henry tried to cut the national museum, natural history collection, fine art collection, and library from the program; he also tried to clip the Castle’s wings and trim back its towers with some success. In the end, it remained a monumental spectacle of artistic whimsy that withstood Henry’s attempts to change it during this formative period in Smithsonian history. This fortified Castle may well have helped to keep the humanities alive within its walls.
However, Henry’s forceful intervention was also beneficial; without his changes the Castle might have been a very brief testament to the Smithsonian’s legacy. His attention to function and costs, and his persistent supervision resulted in a structure that was both functional and fanciful. In a letter to his wife, Henry wrote, “though I am an admirer of good building yet I do not choose to be its victim.” Almost the second it was completed, Henry had the entire East Wing gutted and redone--this time with the luxuries of clean air, a sturdy roof, and a lecture hall that allowed audiences to actually see and hear speakers on the stage.
Joseph Henry’s journal from that time provides a taste of the tension between architect and Secretary:
May 22, 1849: Wrote to Renwick asking him to look at Tabernacle, NY as to light and sound [for the lecture room].
February 17, 1850: Sent for the model of the building. This was afterwards taken away by Mr. Renwick on the grounds that it was his own property.
April 26, 1850: Had interview with Renwick. [He is] willing to cut off some of the towers.”
Owen, Renwick, and Henry each imagined a building design that would capture the goals of the new Smithsonian Institution and drew from their interests and ambitions to do battle over its future. Although the design and construction process was a hard-fought battle between extremes, in the end the combined efforts of these men created a tried and tested building that has carried the mission and actions of the Institution into the present day. The Smithsonian Institution continues to attract a wide variety of professions; artists and scientists who bring their unique passions to Washington, DC in the hope of finding a place that will welcome and nurture their work. The first few years may have been a tense time in Smithsonian history, but the Castle was forged within this fire and it has proved to be a resilient structure to this day.
All sources quoted in this blog are from documents from the Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 09-007, Smithsonian Institution Office of Architectural History and Historic Preservation, Building Files, c. 1960-2000.