During debates about the Smithsonian’s founding, the idea of using James Smithson’s bequest for a botanic garden was included in several drafts of the bill considered by Congress. In 1850, President Millard Fillmore commissioned America’s preeminent landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing to design plans for the National Mall, including grounds around the Smithsonian Castle, then under construction.
Attention did not return to the National Mall until the McMillan Commission in 1902. This cohort of architects and urban planners chaired by Michigan Senator James McMillan created a plan to revitalize and update L’Enfant’s original design for Washington’s monumental core. It created the great lawn we now know, flanked by four rows of American elm trees. Thousands of trees were cut down. Greenhouses, monuments, ponds, gardens, residences, and a railway station were demolished to make way for the McMillan plan. This created much public outcry, but nevertheless clearing was completed by the 1930s.
In 1972, Ripley established a Horticultural Services Division of the Office of Plant Services (now Smithsonian Facilities) to provide appropriate landscaping outside of Smithsonian museums and decorative greenery inside Smithsonian buildings. He was especially interested in landscaping the grounds around the Smithsonian Castle and the Arts and Industries Building on the Mall for the 1976 Bicentennial of the American Revolution. The Arts and Industries Building was being restored to an earlier appearance to host exhibits for the bicentennial, and the South Yard behind the Castle became an extension of the exhibit with a Victorian era design, a precursor to the Haupt Garden that now graces that space. In February of 1976, the horticultural program was renamed the Office of Horticulture to recognize its role as a museum program.
In 2010, the horticultural program was renamed Smithsonian Gardens, in recognition of the role gardens play in the visitor experience. At the time, the gardens of the Smithsonian received 30 million visitors a year, making them some of the most highly visited public gardens in the world. Serving as living classrooms and urban sanctuaries, they provide a memorable, relaxing, and safe destination for visitors, with interpretation that educates the public and supports the museums they surround. All the gardens have sustainable programs to attract native wildlife, from insects to local & migrating birds, to mammals. The American Alliance of Museums accredited Smithsonian Gardens as a museum in 2013, reflecting their role as an integral part of the Smithsonian’s research, display, and educational programs.
Today Smithsonian Gardens is responsible for a variety of specialized gardens, including the Enid A. Haupt Garden. The Freer Gallery of Art has a courtyard garden in the center of the building, inviting relaxation and contemplation. The Pollinator Garden on the east side of the National Museum of Natural History displays a variety of plants attractive to pollinators, providing food and shelter. The nearby Urban Bird Habitat provides the essentials to attract and sustain bird life. Both contain educational displays about how to do this yourself at home. The Kathrine Dulin Folger Rose Garden between the east door of the Castle and Mall door of the Arts and Industries Building displays roses along with perennials, annuals, herbs and evergreens. The Mary Livingston Ripley Garden, between the Arts and Industries Building and Hirshhorn Museum plaza, displays hundreds of varieties of annual and perennial plants, trees and shrubs. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is a landscaped open-air gallery that enhances the many sculptures on display in the sunken garden and the museum’s plaza with an array of plants that dull noise and attract birds, insects, and other natural life.
- Chronology of Smithsonian Gardens
- Bibliography of Smithsonian Gardens
- Historic Images of Smithsonian Gardens
- Smithsonian Gardens Records from the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Historic Image Highlights of Smithsonian Gardens
- Additional Records and Collections of Smithsonian Gardens Across the Smithsonian