The United States Government Building at the Centennial Exhibition, 1874-77

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  • This article discusses the planning, funding and contents of the U. S. Government building erected as part of the United States Centennial Exhibition, which opened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in May of 1876. An executive order in January 1874 created the Board on Behalf of United States Executive Departments to operate under the United States Centennial Commission, and charged it with the duty of collecting articles to reflect the government's facilities and resources in times of both war and peace. The six-member board was chaired by Colonel Stephen C. Lyford of the War Department, and included Assistant Secretary Spencer F. Baird of the Smithsonian Institution as a member.
  • The U. S. Congress wanted the United States Centennial Commission, directed by Alfred T. Goshorn, to be privately financed, but weak economic conditions in 1875 dictated approval of a $1.5 million appropriation. Even with funds still short, the board pushed for construction of its own building to separate materials that would be associated with the dignity of the government from those displayed by private contributors.
  • The board worked within the confines of a $150,000 budget to make the building a reality. Ground-breaking was held in July 1875, and the building, designed by architect James H. Windrim and constructed under the supervision of Henry Metcalfe, was transferred to the board in mid-February 1876. Though many cost-cutting measures resulted in a relatively plain and straight building, the final $80,817.71 cost exceeded the $64,007.61 contracted price. Building fixtures, fees and salaries brought the figure up to $111,400; small amounts were spent for landscaping, and two plaster bas-reliefs and lettering were added to the outside of the building.
  • Display space inside the building was allotted among the governmental entities involved, but through aggressive efforts by Spencer F. Baird, the Smithsonian Institution ended up controlling about two-thirds of the total exhibit area. Baird worked tirelessly to arrange transport of scientific displays and materials to the exhibition building, and bypassed his own board to appeal directly to the Centennial Commission for more exhibit space.
  • The author describes at length steps Baird took to assist the Interior Department in collecting Native American artifacts for display, and mentions Baird's intention of housing much of the government's collections in a future museum in Washington, D.C. Exhibits in the War Department display are recounted with descriptions and anecdotes concerning various armaments, and other displays, such as the Navy's collection of arctic materials and the Treasury Department's exhibit of empty liquor bottles, are mentioned.
  • When the exhibition closed in November 1876, Assistant Secretary Baird was eager to remove artifacts before they were scattered among individuals. He also actively collected objects brought to the exhibition by foreign governments as he made pleas to the U. S. Congress for a national museum to house all the articles.
  • The Government Building at the Centennial Exhibition had been constructed for a one-event purpose, and the author states that its contents may be said to represent the United States government as it chose to portray itself in the centennial year. He comments that the operation was a victim of bureaucratic red tape and inefficiency, and led many observers to feel that arrogance had created a government that was increasingly alienated from a somewhat anti-intellectual public.
  • The building was sold for $1,127.87 after the exhibition closed in November 1876. However, Spencer F. Baird's vision of a second Smithsonian Building in Washington, D.C., was realized when the U. S. National Museum was erected shortly thereafter. The new museum building was very similar in design to the Government Building, complete with Windrim's octagonal dome.


  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Windrim, James H (James Hamilton) 1840-1919
  • Metcalfe, Henry b. 1847
  • Lyford, Stephen C
  • Goshorn, Alfred Traber 1833-1902
  • United States National Museum
  • Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian
  • United States Congress
  • United States Centennial Commission
  • National Collections
  • Centennial Exhibition (1876 : Philadelphia, Pa.)


Smithsonian History Bibliography


Four photographs accompany the article, which is footnoted.

Contained within

Prologue: The Journal of the National Archives Vol. 4, Number 4 (Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


Winter 1972


  • Architecture--Washington (D.C.)
  • Public education
  • Architecture
  • Architects
  • Museums
  • United States Government Exhibit
  • Exhibition buildings
  • Design
  • Artifacts
  • Education
  • Historians
  • Exhibitions
  • Finances
  • Budget
  • Construction (Buildings)
  • U.S. Government Building
  • Public opinion
  • Exhibitions--Philadelphia (Pa.)
  • Indians of North America
  • Architecture--Design and plans
  • Buildings
  • Architectural design
  • Education--Museums


Philadelphia (Pa.)

Physical description

Number of pages: 17; Page numbers: 202-218

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