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.
However, over time only minimal efforts were made horticulturally to develop the area around the Castle known as ‘Smithsonian Park’. Downing’s plan proposed four parks, creating “a public museum of living trees and shrubs.” Unfortunately, Downing died just two years after he was commissioned. After his death, Downing’s design of drives and curvilinear walks across the Mall through copses of trees and naturalistic plantings of shrubs was not completed. Once the rumblings of the Civil War began, the city was in turmoil and Federal resources were scarce. Any plans to continue developing the Mall had to be put on hold.
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.
Meanwhile, the Smithsonian had been growing. What began as one building was now a complex with four busy buildings. The grounds of the Smithsonian were very much a laboratory for the work of the institution, especially the quadrangle created by the Castle, the National Museum Building, the Freer Gallery of Art, and Independence Avenue, known as the South Yard. In 1880, Taxidermist William T. Hornaday began a small living animal collection with two buffalo in the South Yard. Within two years it outgrew its space, turning into the National Zoological Park and moved to Rock Creek. Over the years, the South Yard was home to the taxidermy studios, a magnetic observatory that became the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, a tennis court, and a temporary metal building that housed the National Air Museum, now the National Air and Space Museum.
When Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley was appointed the eighth Secretary in 1964, he brought a broad vision for the Smithsonian’s presence on the Mall. Remembering his childhood visits to the Tuileries Garden outside the Louvre Museum in France, he sought to enliven the Mall with activities, such as a carousel, folklife festival, musical performances, and kite festivals. The Mall now housed five museums: the Castle, Arts and Industries Building, National Museum of Natural History, Freer Gallery of Art, and National Museum of American History.
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.
Enid A. Haupt, a publisher and philanthropist with an interest in horticulture, donated three million dollars to support the design and construction of a new garden in the South Yard. Harmonizing the cultures and architecture of the museums that surround it, the Enid A. Haupt Garden opened in 1987 and stands atop the S. Dillon Ripley International Center, National Museum of African Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian Art. The end of the garden nearest the African Art Museum contains an interpretation of an Islamic garden, and the end nearest the Sackler Gallery is accented with pink granite moongates, a traditional Chinese garden feature.
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.
Maintained by Grounds Management Operations, these 180 acres of gardens are just one part of Smithsonian Gardens work. Greenhouse Nursery Operations staff maintain a greenhouse facility and provide plants from the gardens and horticultural exhibits throughout the Smithsonian and houses the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection, with over 8,000 orchids. Integrated Pest Management manages pests and their risks factors for all Smithsonian facilities. Scientifically based, these programs monitor, detect, and manage potential pest problems and risks. Horticulture Collections Management and Education manages the artifact, archival and living collections, and develops educational programing. This includes the Archives of American Gardens, which collects, preserves, and provides access to resources that document the history of gardens in America.
- 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