Baird's Dream: History of the Arts and Industries Building

Learn about the Smithsonian's first United States National Museum building, now called Arts and Industries, which opened in 1881, and the man who helped shape the Smithsonian’s future, Spencer Fullerton Baird. 

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Arts and Industries Building, 1976-2006

Aerial View of the Mall Filled with People and Tents for 150th Birthday Party on the Mall In the last quarter of the 20th century, tremendous changes occurred all around the Arts and Industries Building (A&I), with the Ripley Garden, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and National Air and Space Museum constructed to its east. To the west, when the rockets left the South Yard, it was transformed into a Victorian garden and later the Enid A. Haupt Garden. The National Museum of African Art replaced the old National Air Museum, connecting the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and S. Dillon Ripley International Center to complete the Quadrangle complex. Across the National Mall, wings were added to the National Museum of Natural History. Crowds thronged the Mall for the Bicentennial of the American Revolution in 1976 and the Smithsonian's 150th Birthday Party in 1996. By 2006, at 125 years old, the first US National Museum Building was in need of renovation and closed to staff and the public.

Independence Avenue View of NASM, by Unknown, 1976, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 94-2462. During these years, the building underwent several distinct phases. On July 4, 1976, the National Air and Space Museum opened on the Mall to the east of the Arts and Industries Building and quickly became the most popular museum in the world. But once again, A&I was left empty.

North Entrance of A&I Building, 1976 This time, Secretary S. Dillon Ripley had a grand plan for this museum. As the Smithsonian's contribution to the Bicentennial of the American Revolution, the Arts and Industries Building was renovated to look like the 1876 Centennial Philadelphia Exhibition, taking the building back to its roots. On opening day, Ripley and Regent Warren Burger arrived in period costume in a horse drawn carriage. The Ripley era was a time when museums were fun and lively. Even inside the staid old building, visitors could hear the festive music of a calliope, recalling county fairs and 19th century Fourth of July picnics.

Affixing the National Historic Landmark Plaque on A&I A year later, in 1977, the A&I Building was given status as a historic landmark. The Discovery Theater for children also opened in the building in 1977. The new gardens surrounding the building made its entrances inviting and Victorian gates were reinstalled on the building in 1979.

Ribbon Cutting Ceremony for AMSG & NMAfA There were great changes to the west of the Arts and Industries Building in the 1980s. The South Yard was completely emptied and dug up to create the Quadrangle complex, with the National Museum of African Art, Sackler Gallery of Art, Ripley International Center, and Enid A. Haupt Garden. A "handicapped garden" between the Arts and Industries Building and the Hirshhorn Museum developed into the Mary Ripley Garden. The north front to the building was landscaped with a rose garden and fountain. New audiences and programs, including evening concerts at the Hirshhorn to the east, made the area much livelier.

El Rio Exhibit, by Dorwin, Harold, 2003, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 2003-12135. As the collections loaned for the Bicentennial exhibit slowly returned to their owners in the 1980s, the building began to look a bit empty again. In 1991, the South Hall was converted into an experimental gallery. Its goal was to revive George B. Goode's emphasis on innovative exhibit techniques. In the 1990s, the Arts and Industries Building hosted the first exhibits of the African American Museum Project and the new National Museum of the American Indian. Once again, new museums had their dress rehearsals in this building.

Arts and Industries Building Despite several roof renovations in the decades prior to 2000, leaks continued to plague the building, with chunks of ceiling occasionally falling down. Leaks also occurred in the water supply underneath the building and in the steam heating pipes throughout the building. The HVAC system was on its last legs when a decision was made to close the building for renovation in 2006. All staff left the building and it was moth-balled until plans were developed and funding was secured for its future.

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