November 12, 2009
I remember well the first day I came to work at Smithsonian magazine 24 years ago. The offices then were located in the Arts and Industries Building, or the A&I, our affectionate acronym for that grand, red-bricked 19th-century exhibition palace. I climbed the wrought-iron steps to my third-floor corner office. With dozens of nook and crannies, the building is a far more democratic place than today’s boxy glass and concrete monoliths, so even plebes like me got corner offices. I was literally working in the attic of the “Nation’s Attic” and it was every bit as romantic as you could imagine. After all, what famous 19th-century writer didn’t repair to an aerie-type chamber to make a mark with glorious prose? I was a young, impressionable editor back then.
Recently on a cold and overcast November day, photo editor Brendan McCabe and I met up with the Smithsonian’s project manager for the building, Christopher B. Lethbridge, and we were treated to an exclusive, behind-the-scenes tour of the enormous Romanesque-style edifice, now shuttered to the public since 2004.
I was feeling a tad bit annoyed with the weather because Lethbridge had promised that the interior of the empty building was especially lovely to see when the sunlight came through the windows at the top of the rotunda and would lend us some graceful lighting for good photography. But Lethbridge wasn’t bothered at all. The overcast day would do nothing to hinder the light, he assured me, having in mind the building’s original visionary architect, the German-born Adolph Cluss. The building, Cluss had promised, would deliver “a well-calculated and pleasing admission of light.” (See a photo gallery of McCabe’s photographs.)
The occasion for our visit came on the heels of recent evidences that the building was at last receiving its due. For some time now, staff around the Smithsonian have sadly shaken their heads at the notion that one of the Institution’s finest and most historic buildings was closed for repairs, and that no funds had been found to begin the necessary process. Some time in early October, however, with little fanfare, signs went up at the front and in the back of the building announcing that construction was underway with moneys garnered from the American Recovery and Investment Act. Next, scaffolding was assembled at places outside the building. A crane appeared at the building’s west door. And a statue of one of the Smithsonian’s former secretaries, Spencer Baird, was safely encased in a plywood box.
“What we’re doing now is,” Lethbridge explained, “repairing the exterior of the building, replacing all the windows and clearing out all of the inappropriate construction that’s happened over the past one hundred years.” In fact, a $25 million dollar appropriation this summer from the stimulus package, part of which went to the Arts and Industries Building project, “got the ball rolling,” said Lethbridge. The entire restoration and renovation will likely cost $200 million and could take until the year 2014.
The story of the A&I begins in the early days of our young, earnest nation, in a time when it was vying for status among the world’s nations. Nations of stature had glorious buildings and palaces that housed museums and exhibitions that touted the forward thinking arts and industries of the era. The British had the new Crystal Palace. In Munich, the Glass Palace had been built in 1854. And in Paris, too, plans were underway to build an exposition building. But the capital city of the United States, was still struggling to define itself, constructing its meager government buildings in the muddy swamps along the Potomac. What the young nation needed was a modern, public space for exhibitions.
Meanwhile, the Smithsonian story had already begun after a wealthy, but untitled, British scientist died without heir in 1829 and left his substantial wealth to the United States for the founding at Washington of an “Institution for the increase and diffusion of knowledge” (among men, the will actually said, but we’re pretty sure he meant women, too).
At first, James Smithson’s money and how to spend it twisted the early Smithsonian officers up in knots. Throughout the mid-1800s, debate was ongoing. Should the Smithsonian be a scientific venture, a library, a museum? The Castle building was the first Smithsonian building to take shape. It was completed in 1855. Some of the historic stuff that comes from nation building was housed in that post-Norman construct, but the Smithsonian’s officials back then resisted efforts to make the place a museum. Then, when a 1865 fire damaged the Castle and much of what was in it, Congress began to think seriously about what the Smithsonian should be and where to house some of the things the country was collecting. The Smithsonian needed another building, Congress decided, that would house a museum.
A proponent of the museum vision was the Smithsonian associate secretary Spencer Baird. He would eventually become the Smithsonian’s second secretary in 1878. And it was on Baird’s watch that the brand new Arts and Industries Building was built between 1879 and 1881. The building made its first public debut as the site of the Inaugural reception for President James Garfield on March 4, 1881.
Another important figure in our A&I story is chief architect Cluss, who had settle in the United States after his native Germany’s failed revolution in 1848. (Cluss was also tight with Karl Marx and Friedrick Engle, but that’s yet another story.) The German architect was a genius when it came to large, public buildings. He built market places and churches and became one of Washington’s most sought-after architects of the time.
And it was to Cluss that we owed a great debt to for that harmonious, soft light that was making the interior of the cavernous building an easy shot for Brendan’s camera on the day of our tour (left). Indeed, as Brendan and I walked through the building with Lethbridge, we wandered through the warren of offices and ill-advised, extraneous additions that had grown up inside the A&I over the last hundred years and we saw numerous impressions in the walls where grand arched windows had been covered or removed. The originial building did not have any electricity, Lethbridge pointed out and was not installed in the A&I until two years later in 1883.
The building stands ready for its pending renovation. All of its historic, stone, tile and terrazo floors have been carefully covered with foam padding and plywood. The balustrades and ornamental railings each are housed in custom-made plywood cabinetry designed to safeguard them. On the walls in the rotunda, the ersatz decorative stencils, recreated in the 1970s, have been gently scraped at places to reveal the originals underneath that were based on Moorish, Greek and Byzantine designs.
Lethbridge and his team have studied the building, combing through original documentation from its inception and throughout all of its subsequent uses and periods and have determined to restore the building to the era of its “Primary Period of Significance,” as they call it, the years between 1881 and 1902. The building will bask in the natural light after all of the original site lines are restored, which should make it worthy of the coveted green building status of Gold, if not Platinum, LEED certification.
As we walked around the outside of the building, a team of masonry restoration contractors were atop a crane and raising themselves up above the west door and gently using wet sponges to carefully wipe away the years of wear and tear off of the painted brickwork. We all stood admiring their industry, when our reverie was interrupted by a passerby, another Smithsonian staffer. “They should have torn it down, Chris,” she chided Lethbridge with a smile.
A crestfallen Lethbridge replied, “No, I’ve read reports of the times, they meant for the building to last until the time of their grandchildren.”
Clearly the A&I is in good hands, the Smithsonian’s first museum building is likely going to be around for another generation.
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