Architectural History of the National Museum of Natural History, 1904




Date: 1904-1911


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  • The National Museum of Natural History was conceived under the McMillan Plan (The Report of the Senate Park Commission. The Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia) which proposed eliminating the Victorian landscape that made up Washington, DC, and returning it to the simple, Neoclassical style of a federal city.
  • The nearly one million square foot Beaux-Arts building was envisioned by the architectural firm Hornblower & Marshall, but Secretary Samuel P. Langley was consistently unhappy with the design. The construction was initially halted until architects Charles Follen McKim and Daniel Hudson Burnham intervened. McKim and Burnham turned the design into a more classical one, lowering the height of the dome and adding a massive columned portico that faced the Mall, and construction resumed. The final product was one of the first of its kind in Washington, and was used as a prototype for other Beaux-Arts buildings.
  • With architectural elements including a flat roof, arched windows, symmetrical granite facade, and domed rotunda, the Natural History museum became the second largest building in Washington, second to only the Capitol Building.
  • To compensate for the museum's ever expanding collection, two new wings were added in the early 1960s bringing the total square footage of the building to just under two million. In 1950, the name of the museum was changed from United States National Museum to National Museum of Natural History. The first exhibits modernization project began in the 1950s and continued into the 1960s. Major hall renovations began in 2003 with the Hall of Mammals, and is ongoing to today. In 2014 the Dinosaur Hall closed for a $48 million renovation, and is expected to reopen in 2019.


  • Rathbun, Richard 1852-1918
  • McKim, Charles Follen
  • Burnham, Daniel Hudson 1846-1912
  • Langley, S. P (Samuel Pierpont) 1834-1906
  • Park Improvement Commission of the District of Columbia, United States Congress (McMillan Commission)
  • Hornblower & Marshall
  • National Museum of Natural History (U.S.)
  • Hall of Mammals
  • Exhibits Modernization Program United States National Museum
  • United States National Museum
  • Dinosaur Hall (Exhibition)


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,




  • Eclecticism
  • Architecture--Washington (D.C.)
  • Architecture
  • Museum architecture
  • Eclecticism in architecture

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