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.
- Smithsonian Institution Building or Castle, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Mary Henry Diary account of January 24, 1865 fire, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Smokin' Smithsonian, Smithsonian Mobile Castle Highlights