Smithsonian Tries to Locate Cornerstone of SI Building

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  • Eighth Secretary of the Smithsonian, S. Dillon Ripley approves a search to find the cornerstone of the Smithsonian Institution Building, or "Castle," at the suggestion of Smithsonian staff. The idea was first presented in December of 1976 as an event to coincide with the Conference on the Life and Times of Robert Dale Owen, a congressman and Smithsonian Regent who was very involved in the planning of the building. Staff reintroduced the idea to Secretary Ripley in the hopes that the cornerstone could be found in time for the 130th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone on May 1, 1977. Although the committee on the SI Building cornerstone project made "extensive research and some digging in the southeast corner," they were not able to find the elusive stone. Eventually the project is dropped because members of the committee become concerned about damaging the SI Building's grounds and feel that the value of the prize is dwarfed by the effort and expense required to obtain it.
  • The cornerstone was laid on May 1, 1847, in a ceremony attended by six to seven thousand people, and the day was declared a public holiday. A procession of many officials, led by President James K. Polk and the Smithsonian's first secretary, Joseph Henry, among many officials, wound its way from the White House to the building site located on the south side of the National Mall. Ironically, the ceremony was documented in great detail, and there are many records that describe attendance, speeches and prayers, the gavel that was used, the inscription on the stone, and its contents, but there are no known records of the stone's location. It might be at the location of the ceremony at the southeast corner, or it might be in the northeast corner, a popular placement in Masonic tradition.
  • According to documentation, the site should hold two metal capsules that were buried with the stone, one inside it and one behind it. The capsules contain various Masonic seals and documents, a Bible, newspapers, records of the Smithsonian, copies of the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence, gold and silver coins, and an inscribed plate commemorating the laying of the stone.


  • Ripley, Sidney Dillon 1913-2001
  • Goode, James M
  • Owen, Robert Dale 1801-1877
  • Polk, James K (James Knox) 1795-1849
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (Washington, D.C.)
  • United States President (1845-1849 : Polk)


Chronology of Smithsonian History


  • Letter to Secretary S. Dillon Ripley from James M. Goode, curator of the Castle, April 25, 1977. Accession 09-007, Box 6, Folder "Smithsonian Institution Building cornerstone, effort to locate, 1979."
  • Practor, John Clagett."Smithsonian's Cornerstone," The Washington Post, 1938. Accession 09-007, Box 6, Folder "Smithsonian Institution Building cornerstone, effort to locate, 1979."

Contact information

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


  • April, 1977
  • 20th century


  • Rites and ceremonies
  • Secretariats
  • Cornerstones
  • Secretaries
  • Freemasons
  • SI Buildings
  • Rites and Ceremonies
  • Freemasonry--Rituals


Letters (correspondence)

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