Fire Strikes Smithsonian Building

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A major fire destroys much of the Smithsonian Institution Building. Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry had been concerned about this danger for years and had taken preventive measures such as prohibiting smoking and open fires, starting a night watch, and stationing containers of water in various locations. Despite these precautions, a fire breaks out between the ceiling and the roof of the main building when workmen hanging pictures in the second floor picture gallery insert a stove pipe into a furring space rather than into a flue. The fire, said to have attracted thousands of spectators, destroys the second floor and roof of the main building as well as portions of the towers. The lecture room, apparatus room, and picture gallery are destroyed, including almost all of John Mix Stanley's irreplaceable collection of American Indian portraits, which had been on exhibit in the building since 1852. Meteorological records and scientific instruments, including those donated by Dr. Robert Hare, are also lost. The contents of Henry's office between the two front towers burns, including virtually all of his official correspondence since the founding of the Smithsonian in 1846 as well as scientific papers, diaries, and the completed manuscript of the 1864 annual report. In the south tower, the contents of the regents' room, including James Smithson's personal effects and mineral collection, also burn. Smithson's portrait and library survive. The Smithsonian library in the west wing and the museum on the ground floor of the main building are spared, thanks both to a wind from the west and the fireproof materials used in the construction of the museum area.


  • Hare, Robert 1781-1858
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Smithson, James 1765-1829
  • Stanley, John Mix 1814-1872
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (Washington, D.C.)


Chronology of Smithsonian History


  • For a discussion of the fire's impact, see Dorman's "'Interruptions and Embarrassments': The Smithsonian Institution during the Civil War" on Henry website.
  • Marc Rothenberg, et al, eds. The Papers of Joseph Henry, Volume 10, January 1858-December 1865: The Smithsonian Years. Washington, D.C.: Science History Publications, 2004, pp. xl-xli, 459-71, 607 (index)
  • Goode, George Brown, ed. The Smithsonian Institution, 1846-1896, The History of Its First Half Century. Washington, D.C.: De Vinne Press, 1897, p. 323, 837.
  • Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution for the year 1864. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1865, p. 13, 23, 29, 115-120.

Contact information

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


January 24, 1865


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