After the Spirit of St. Louis was delivered to the Smithsonian by Charles Lindbergh on April 30, 1928, a letter appeared a few days later in The Washington Post calling for the world-famous plane to be enclosed in a glass case in order to "permit an unobstructed view and at the same time, render its precious contents immune both to the ravages of the climate and the innumerable love pats of countless thousands …" The letter writer suggested a collection drive for $20,000 to acquire a case and would contribute the first dollar.
The monoplane and its solo pilot had made history when it flew nonstop from New York to Paris in 1927. Lindbergh and the Ryan aircraft gained international celebrity status and inspired many aviation fans.
Smithsonian employee Paul Garber, who was responsible for this Smithsonian acquisition, recognized the significance of the flight. He encouraged Smithsonian Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott to send a cable to Lindbergh in Paris immediately after the flight to see if he would donate the aircraft. Lindbergh agreed.
Lindbergh flew it to Bolling Field on April 30 and was greeted by Garber and the Army Air Service. It was dismantled, transported to the Smithsonian, and reassembled for display.
Garber recounted in his 1974 oral history that, "We received it April 30, 1928, and I had it ready for exhibition on May the 8th, and when we opened the doors -- and that was a Sunday -- there was a mob out here extending all over the Mall! Thousands of persons came in, just everyone to see it and no one had ever done that for any previous exhibit, no matter what it was."
The Smithsonian Annual Report from 1928 noted that the plane was immediately visited by thousands that year. "It promises to be for a long time to come the most popular exhibit in the whole National Museum, and the thanks of the Nation are due Colonel Lindbergh and his friends in St. Louis for placing the famous plane in the national collection," noted the report.
Hung in the Arts and Industries Building initially, this meant it would not receive "love pats" from museum visitors the letter writer worried about. Lindbergh returned to the Smithsonian in 1952 and got into the cockpit again to find markings to note his fuel use.
Garber served in a variety of roles during his Smithsonian tenure, including preparator in the Division of Mechanical Technology and the first curator of the National Air Museum, now the National Air and Space Museum.
Earlier this year the plane was lowered for the first time in 22 years for conservation work for eight months at the National Air and Space Museum. This also allowed the Smithsonian's 3D Team to scan the craft as well without touching it. The digital files from the scanning will be available online soon for exploration by today's aviation fans that was unimaginable nearly 90 years ago.
- Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis, Charles A. Lindbergh, National Air and Space Museum
- Historic images of the Spirit of St. Louis, Smithsonian Institution Archives