Robert Mills Submits Design for Smithsonian Institution Building

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  • In 1841 Robert Mills completes the first design of the Smithsonian Institution Building which proposes that the Smithsonian could be integrated with the newly founded National Institute for the Promotion of Science. The architect submitted his drawing to Joel Poinsett, the Secretary of War who was also serving as president of the National Institute. Ultimately the project was postponed until Congress passed legislation and made appropriations for the Smithsonian to construct a separate building.
  • The Mills plan depicts a romantic, medieval style building with arched windows, parapets, and three towers. Both the north and south entrances are each emphasized with a large hexagonal tower and the south tower is capped by a glass dome to house an observatory. The building also contains lecture halls, exhibition rooms, and space for a conservatory. Unlike James Renwick, Jr.'s, later design, this early layout is perfectly symmetrical and constructed with white stone. Mills based this proposal on his 1839 plan of a library and observatory at West Point but he decided to break away from the neo-classical style that was used for most public buildings at the time.
  • When the Smithsonian was established in 1846, the building committee, led by Robert Dale Owen consulted with Robert Mills and adapted many aspects of his design into a new set of drawings which were given to the architects who participated in the design competition as a model for them to follow.


  • Mills, Robert 1781-1855
  • Renwick, James 1818-1895
  • Owen, Robert Dale 1801-1877
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (Washington, D.C.)
  • Smithsonian Institution Building Competition
  • United States Military Academy
  • Board of Regents Committee on Buildings


Chronology of Smithsonian History


Field, Cynthia R., Richard E. Stamm, and Heather P. Ewing. The Castle: An Illustrated History of the Smithsonian Institution Building. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

Contact information

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




  • Design
  • Drawings and plans
  • Architecture
  • Drawings
  • Architectural drawing
  • Architecture--Drawings and plans
  • Architecture--Design and plans

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