Architectural History of the National Museum Building (Arts and Industries), 1879




Date: 1879-ongoing


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  • Initial construction began on the National Museum in 1879. The idea for the first ever building to house the U.S. National Museum came out of the extreme overcrowding at the Smithsonian Institution Building (Castle). Smithsonian scientists and curators had been collecting items to display at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibit of 1876, in addition to their other collections. Following the fair, the Smithsonian suddenly had too many objects and nowhere to store or display them, so Congress was petitioned and the funds for the new building were made available. The building was erected with the latest fireproof technologies, and was completed in less than two years. It opened in 1881.
  • Prominent architects Adolf Cluss (1825-1905) and Paul Schulze (1827-1897) were chosen to design the new museum building. From 1862-1876 Cluss had either designed or oversaw all of the public buildings built in Washington, DC.
  • The design for the National Museum Building got its inspiration from many different architectural styles, and doesn't fit perfectly in to any one style. The building's symmetrical, modular shape was inspired by writings of architect J.N.L. Durand (1760-1834), who was an important figure in the Neoclassical architecture movement. Each modular unit is built on to the central unit, thus maintaining its own identity. The building has four entrances, one in the center of each side of the building, each with its own set of symmetrical towers. In fact, the building is identical on all four sides. In the very center sits a domed rotunda, and there are four pavilions, one on each corner of the building, inspired by the popular buildings of the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876.
  • The official architectural style of the Arts and Industries Building is High Victorian, which is considered to be a sub-style of Gothic Revival. Elements of High Victorian style include the building's polychromatic façade and varying textures. The building possesses Gothic style elements including arched windows and doorways, as well as several square towers.
  • With the continued growth of the Smithsonian, the collection had once again outgrown the building within just a few years. From 1897 to 1902, mezzanine balconies were installed in the four corner courts, designed by local architects Hornblower and Marshall in Beaux-Arts style. This was only a temporary fix. When the National Museum of Natural History opened in 1911, all of the natural history collections were transferred there. The building was renamed Arts and Industries, and only industry, technology, and American history collections remained.
  • Arts and Industries Building has served as a temporary space for many exhibitions for future museums including the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Museum of History and Technology (now National Museum of American History), and National Air and Space Museum, and the National Museum of the American Indian. A major renovation took place in the 1970s to add more office space and update the building. It continued to house specialty exhibits until 2004 when it was closed indefinitely due to structural damage. The building is one of the most endangered historic sites in America according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Smithsonian anticipates that the current renovation will be complete in the fall of 2015.


  • Schulze, Paul
  • Cluss, Adolph 1825-1905
  • Arts and Industries Building Rotunda
  • Arts and Industries Building North Hall
  • Arts and Industries Building West Hall
  • Arts and Industries Building Southwest Pavilion
  • Arts and Industries Building
  • Arts and Industries Building North Entrance
  • Arts and Industries Building Southeast Pavilion
  • Arts and Industries Building West Entrance
  • Arts and Industries Building Southwest Range
  • United States National Museum Dept. of Arts and Industries
  • Arts and Industries Building East Hall
  • South-East Range of the Arts and Industries Building
  • Arts and Industries Building Lecture Hall
  • Arts and Industries Building North Front
  • Board of Regents
  • National Trust for Historic Preservation
  • National Register of Historic Places
  • Hornblower & Marshall
  • National Museum of the American Indian (U.S.)
  • National Museum of History and Technology (U.S.)
  • National Museum of American History (U.S.) (NMAH)
  • National Air and Space Museum
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum
  • 1876: A Centennial Exhibition (Exhibition) (1976: Washington, D.C.)


Chronology of Smithsonian History


Ewing, H., & Ballard, A. (2009). A guide to Smithsonian architecture. Washington: Smithsonian Books.

Contact information

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




  • Museum buildings
  • Architecture--Washington (D.C.)
  • Conservation and restoration
  • Architecture
  • Architecture, Victorian
  • Gothic revival (Architecture)
  • Museum architecture
  • Architecture, Neoclassical
  • Architecture, Gothic
  • Architecture--Conservation and restoration


Washington (D.C.)

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