Why the Smithsonian Castle Is Getting a Major Overhaul

The iconic building on the National Mall will be closed for five years as its interior gets a highly anticipated makeover

a red carpet surrounded by marble columns
The Great Hall of the Castle (pictured in 1969) has housed exhibits, a library, special events and a visitor information center. Smithsonian Institution Archives

The Smithsonian Castle has been a symbol of the Institution from the very beginning. On the outside, the Institution’s first building has hardly changed at all since its construction in 1855—but just like the Smithsonian itself, the Castle has gone through many iterations over the years. This distinctive structure has mirrored the societal and institutional values of the time, for better or worse.

The iconic red stone that makes up the building’s exterior is sandstone that was mined by enslaved people at the Seneca Quarry in Maryland, some 30 miles northwest of the National Mall. Like the United States Capitol and the White House, the Smithsonian Castle’s foundation was built by enslaved hands.

Just ten years after construction was completed—and months before the 13th Amendment was ratified, marking the abolition of slavery—the West Wing of the Castle went up in flames. A stove that had been incorrectly installed sent embers into the attic. Much of the building and its contents were destroyed, including founding donor James Smithson’s records, extensive Native American artifacts and portraits, and what was then the largest auditorium in Washington. During the renovation process, then-Secretary Joseph Henry chose not to restore the auditorium following his decision to bar Frederick Douglass from speaking there, declaring that he would not allow “the lecture of the colored man to be given in the rooms of the Smithsonian.”   

Thankfully, the Institution has evolved, and it reflects a more diverse and more enlightened society since Secretary Henry’s time. That transformation has extended to our physical spaces, which have expanded dramatically since the Castle was the lone Smithsonian building to include a sprawling collection of museums, libraries, archives, education centers and scientific hubs. Even so, the Castle itself hasn’t been renovated since 1968. That changes this spring when we break ground on a five-year renovation that will give the building a much-needed upgrade.

While the Castle’s exterior will appear largely unchanged, the interior will undergo a breathtaking transformation. Some offices added during the last renovation will be removed, honoring the building’s original spirit and design while opening it more broadly to the public. Offices for the Secretary and Under Secretaries will be preserved in the East Wing. There will be several convention spaces—including two auditoriums—for public meetings, a robust visitor information center and expanded dining options. After nearly two centuries, the Castle remains an embodiment of the heart of the Institution, a majestic space where the past and future converge.

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This article is a selection from the March 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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