There is one building on the National Mall that has been closed to the public for a decade but, thanks to a renovation project launched in 2009, is now beginning to awaken. It is the Arts and Industries Building next (east side) to the Smithsonian Castle.
Arts and Industries Building, View from the Enid Haupt Garden at the Smithsonian Castle
It’s a large building (the roof covers 2.5 acres) and it has been here a long time. Constructed in 1879-1881, it was the first building created solely to house the US National Museum. The National Museum’s collections had been housed in the Smithsonian Castle since the 1850s but soon outgrew the space. Spencer Baird, Secretary of the Smithsonian at the time, devoted his entire career to developing a great National Museum at the Smithsonian and this building brought his dreams to reality. A detailed history of the building can be found here.
The structure was renovated in the 1970s for a special exhibition during the National Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. Afterwards, it was used for a variety of temporary exhibits but its condition slowly deteriorated until it received the dubious distinction in 2006 of being named as one of America’s Most Endangered Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and was closed soon afterwards. Three years later, some of the funding needed for its restoration was made available by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Although the funding was only about 30-40% of the total amount required, it was sufficient for a “shell restoration,” essentially restoring the exterior face, replacing the roof and windows (all 911), and stabilizing the structure.
The above image is by G. Edward Johnson, courtesy Wikipedia and the source information can be found here.
When the exterior scaffolding was removed at the end of this phase, the results were quite impressive.
Detail of Jefferson Street Entrance
Exterior of the Central Rotunda, View from Independence Avenue
Western Facade, View from across Independence Avenue
But funds are not available (so far) for an equivalent restoration of the interior and it is not open for the public. However, the Smithsonian Associates recently held a special “open house” and I joined several hundred others to get a rare look at the interior.
South Hall Looking Toward Independence Avenue
It was a festive event, with games, music, and food. There was much interest in the presentations, especially the compelling story of the restoration project as related by Construction Manager Pat Ponton (above). Built in a time without air conditioning and before electrical lighting was practical, the visionary design incorporated natural light and circulation, high ceilings and fireproof materials that foreshadowed modern construction techniques.
Games for the Visitors
The black marble used in the geometric floors was quarried in Vermont and is characterized by a variety of fossils dating back 480 million years. The same marble was also used in Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
Much work remains but one can glimpse its former glory, especially when looking up at the dome above the central Rotunda.
Dome over the Rotunda
According to Frederica Adelman, the Director of the Smithsonian Associates, the space is being made available for rent for private functions. But lacking sufficient funding for the full restoration, final plans for the building’s ultimate purpose have not been made.
Tours are periodically offered by the Smithsonian Associates, so stay alert for future opportunities to get a peek. In the meantime,