The Birth of a Building: Constructing the United States National Museum

On June 20, 1911, construction of the brand new United States National Museum, now the National Museum of Natural History was finally completed.  This was an accomplishment that was nine years in the making. 

The United States National Museum was originally housed in the Arts and Industries Building until the collection grew too big for the space.  As a result, in 1902, Congress passed legislation authorizing the creation of a new building across the National Mall to house and display collection materials.  It took nearly two years for a plan for the new museum to be drawn up and approved, but on June 15, 1904, Secretary Samuel Pierpoint Langley broke ground on the site, and construction was officially underway.  The foundation was dug by hand, with the occasional use of steam-powered back-hoes, and dirt was removed from the site by horse-drawn carriages.  The first stone was officially laid on the foundation on August 21, 1905, more than a year after construction started.  Even though construction was not complete until 1911, the museum opened to the public on March 17, 1910.  In the 1930s, the creation of two new wings was approved, but that idea did not come to fruition until the 1960s because of a lack of funding.  The museum as it looks today was completed in 1965. 

Click through the slideshow to watch the building come to life!

1 of 20

Drawing of the U. S. National Museum, South Front and Surroundings, by Hornblower & Marshall, c. 1906. Record Unit 92, Box CGMC, Folder: Building Series 4, Items 1-125 NMNH, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. SIA2009-2065.

General Building Plan for the National Museum of Natural History, July 20, 1904, Record Unit 92, Box CGMC, Folder: Building Series 4, Book 250-299, NMNH, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. SIA2009-2067.

Digging Foundation of the National Museum of Natural History, 1904, Record Unit 79, Box 9, Folder: 5 and Record Unit 95, Box 38, Folder: 14, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. MAH-16229.

Digging the Foundation for National Museum of Natural History, 1904, Record Unit 79, Box 9, Folder: 5, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. 94-12608.

Wooden Section of South Front, National Museum of Natural History, 1904, Record Unit 79, Box 9, Folder 4, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. SIA2009-1850.

Laying First Stone at United States National Museum Building, 1905, Record Unit 79, Box 9, Folder: 5 and Record Unit 562, Box 1, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. MAH-19636.

Construction of the U. S. National Museum, 1905, Record Unit 95, Box 33, Folder: 4, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. MAH-17531.

Construction of First Story of U. S. National Museum Building, 1905, Record Unit 79, Box 9, Folder: 5, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. MAH-17534.

Construction of Exterior Walls of U. S. National Museum Building, 1905, Record Unit 79, Box 9, Folder: 5, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. MAH-17735.

Construction of the U. S. National Museum Building, 1908, Record Unit 79, Box 9, Folder: 5, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. MAH-20821.

Construction of the U. S. National Museum Building, 1908, Record Unit 79, Box 9, Folder: 5 and Record Unit 562, Box 1, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. MAH-20822.

Basement of United States National Museum (National Museum of Natural History), 1908, Record Unit 79, Box 9, Folder: 4, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. MAH-21675.

Basement Construction, National Museum of Natural History, 1908, Record Unit 79, Box 9, Folder: 4, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. MAH-22032.

First Floor Construction, National Museum of Natural History, 1908, Record Unit 79, Box 9, Folder: 4, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. MAH-21988.

Basement of National Museum of Natural History while Construction is Still Going On, 1908, Record Unit 79, Box 9, Folder: 4, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. MAH-21684.

Construction on front of National Museum of Natural History, 1909, Record Unit 79, Box 9, Folder: 5, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. 2003-19551.

Construction of Natural History Building, 1909, Record Unit 95, Box 33, Folder: 4, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. 82-3231.

Proposed Wings for the Natural History Building, 1931, by Allied Architects of Washington, D.C., Record Unit 95, Box 33, Folder 17, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. 95-1176.

East Wing of Natural History Building Near Completion, 1962, Record Unit 95, Box 33, Folder: 19, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. MNH812.

National Museum of Natural History's Building, 1977, Record Unit 95, Box 33, Folder: 21, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Neg. no. 77-10573-B.

 

Leave a Comment

Produced by the Smithsonian Institution Archives. For copyright questions, please see the Terms of Use.