Henry Horan in the office of the Superintendent of Buildings in the United States National Museum, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Image No. MAH-3663.

Spotlight: Henry Joseph Horan, Superintendent of Buildings

We’re taking a closer look at staff member Henry Horan (1838-1896), who held several positions at the Smithsonian, including janitor, watchman, and superintendent of buildings, during his long career at the Institution.

Henry Joseph Horan was born in Kilhenney, County Cork, Ireland in 1838 and emigrated to the United States in the 1850s. He was employed as a janitor for the Smithsonian in 1857 before moving into a watchman position in 1858, a role he held until 1869. As a watchman, Horan's duties included safeguarding collections and spaces of the United States National Museum. He was present during the fire at the Smithsonian Institution Building, known as the Castle, on the night of January 24, 1865 and provided testimony of the events of that night to the Special Committee of the Board of Regents for their report on the origin of the fire. Once the fire had been discovered, Horan helped to remove apparatus, books, specimens, and paintings from the picture gallery, as well as training a hose on the fire in the Lecture Room. 

Portrait of Henry Joseph Horan, seated.

In 1869, Horan moved to Philadelphia, where he ran a menagerie and became Superintendent of the Zoological Park. This experience positioned him to return to the Smithsonian in a larger role in 1876, when he was put in charge of the Armory Building in Washington, D.C. after Congress granted permission to the Smithsonian  to use the space to hold the government collections acquired during the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. In 1880, he was made Superintendent of the new United States National Museum Building, now known as the Arts and Industries Building, where he oversaw numerous activities, including police and inspection, mechanics and labor, construction and repairs, cleaning and public comfort, and heating and lighting. He was also in charge of packing, boxing, and shipping collections to various expositions, many of which he also travelled to in order to ensure the safety of the artifacts and specimens.

Henry Horan in the office of the Superintendent of Buildings in the United States National Museum.

Outside of his work duties, he was also known to be an accomplished taxidermist, an expert in the care of living animals, and was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian collections. A father to ten children with his wife, Margareth C. Johnson, Henry Horan was a beloved member of his community and was held in esteem by his Smithsonian colleagues.

He remained Superintendent of Buildings until his death in 1896, leaving behind a legacy of excellence and efficiency that informs current operations of our facilities and protective services.

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