April 17, 2013
On April 16, Smithsonian Institution Secretary G. Wayne Clough testified before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about the impending effects of sequestration. Though the Obama administration had sought a $59 million budget increase for the Institution in fiscal 2014, this year Clough has to contend with a $41 million budget reduction due to sequestration. Gallery closings, fewer exhibitions, reduced educational offerings, loss of funding for research and cuts to the planning process of the under-construction National Museum of African American History and Culture were listed among the impacts of the sequestration.
Clough began his testimony: “Each year millions of our fellow citizens come to Washington to visit—for free—our great museums and galleries and the National Zoo, all of which are open every day of the year but one. Our visitors come with high aspirations to learn and be inspired by our exhibitions and programs.”
“It is my hope,” Clough told the committee, “that our spring visitors will not notice the impact of the sequestration.” Perhaps most noticeable would be the gallery closures, which, while they would not close entire museums, would restrict access to certain floors or spaces in the museums, unable to pay for sufficient security. Those changes would begin May 1, according to Clough.
Clough warned, however, that while these short-term measures will save in the near future, they might also entail long-term consequences. Unforeseen costs may arise in the form of diminished maintenance capabilities, for example. “Any delays in revitalization or construction projects will certainly result in higher future operating and repair costs,” Clough said.
This also threatens the Institution’s role as steward of thousands of historic and valuable artifacts–”Morse’s telegraph; Edison’s light bulb; the Salk vaccine; the 1865 telescope designed by Maria Mitchell, America’s first woman astronomer who discovered a comet; the Wright Flyer; Amelia Earhart’s plane; Louis Armstrong’s trumpet; the jacket of labor leader Cesar Chavez,” to name a few.
April 9, 2013
The red sandstone façade of the Smithsonian Castle makes it one of the most striking buildings in Washington, DC. The stone for the building was cut less than 30 miles away at the Seneca Quarry along the Potomac River in Maryland and shipped to the city in the 1850s when the building was first under construction. But the quarry’s story is a complicated one, involving death, floods, bankruptcy and presidential embarrassment. DC author and historian Garrett Peck recently set about telling its tales in his new book, The Smithsonian Castle and the Seneca Quarry, out now via The History Press. We chatted with Peck via e-mail about the Castle’s construction, the importance of preserving the stone’s history and the quarry’s “boom-bust ride” of fortune and ruin.
What makes Seneca redstone so special?
Seneca redstone is unique for its color and durability. It is a rusty red color, caused by iron oxide that leached into the sandstone (yes, it literally rusted the stone). The stone was easy to carve from the cliffs near Seneca Creek, Maryland, but it hardened over the course of a year, making it a durable building material. Thus you see Seneca redstone in hundreds of 19th-century buildings around Washington, especially around the basement levels. The stone was considered waterproof.
Why was Seneca redstone chosen for the Castle?
Fifteen quarries from across the Mid-Atlantic bid on the Smithsonian Castle project in 1846, and the Castle could have ended up any number of different colors: granite, marble, white or yellow sandstone—or redstone. The Seneca quarry owner, John P.C. Peter, underbid the competition by such a staggering amount that it drew the attention of the Castle’s Building Committee. It was almost too good to be true, so they dispatched architect James Renwick and geologist David Dale Owen to investigate. They returned with good news: there was more than enough stone to build the Castle. Renwick wrote the Building Committee: “The stone is of excellent quality, of even color, being of a warm gray, a lilac tint resembling that known as ashes of rose, and can, from all indications, be found in sufficient quantities to supply all the face work for the Institution.”
What was the Seneca Quarry like at the height of its production?
The Seneca quarry must have been a bustling and noisy place to work, what with the constant hammering away at the cliffside, the din of workers carving and polishing the stone, and the braying of mules who pulled the C&O Canal boats to Washington. We don’t know how much redstone was removed, but it was extensive: there were about a dozen quarries stretching along the one-mile stretch of the Potomac River west of Seneca Creek. The workforce included many immigrants from England, Ireland and Wales, as well as African Americans. Slaves most likely worked at the quarry before the Civil War—and freedmen certainly worked there until the quarry closed in 1901.
Your book says the quarry’s history was a “boom-bust ride.” What was some of the drama surrounding the quarry and the Castle’s construction?
The Seneca quarry had four different owners: the Peter family, who owned it from 1781 to 1866, then sold it after their fortunes declined because of the Civil War. Three different companies then owned the quarry until it closed—two of them going bankrupt. The Seneca Sandstone Company (1866-1876) was horribly managed financially. It was involved in a national scandal that embarrassed the Ulysses S. Grant presidency and helped bring down the Freedman’s Bank. The quarry’s last owner shut down operations in 1901 once it became clear that redstone was no longer in fashion. It had had a good five decade run while Victorian architecture reigned.
What is the Seneca quarry like today?
The Seneca quarry sits right along the C&O Canal about 20 miles upriver from Washington, DC in Montgomery County, Maryland. But it’s so overgrown with trees and brush that most people have no idea that it exists—even though hundreds of people bike or walk right past it everyday along the canal towpath. Luckily the land is entirely protected in parkland, so it can never be developed. I have a dream that we can create a visitor park in the quarry so people can explore its history year-round.
We so rarely ever make the connection between our building materials and the places where we live and work. Yet every brick, sheetrock, splotch of paint and wooden doorway came from somewhere, didn’t it? The Seneca quarry is one of those forgotten places—but fortunately it isn’t lost to us.
What is your personal connection to the story of Seneca Quarry?
I discovered the Seneca quarry while researching my previous book, The Potomac River: A History and Guide. It was the one major historical site that I found along the Potomac that no one knows about—there isn’t so much as a sign to indicate that it’s there. It is such a fascinating site, like discovering something lost from ancient Rome (even though it only closed in 1901). There has never been a book about the quarry’s history written before, and I also soon discovered that there were no quarry records. It was a story that I had to piece together by searching through archives. Happily I found a treasure trove of historic photos showing the Seneca quarry in action—many populated with the African American workers who worked there.
March 6, 2013
Looking for something to do today, while the snowy weather conditions persist? The Smithsonian museums will be open for business today. But the National Zoo will be closed Wednesday, March 6, 2013.
Plan your visit, using our convenient Tours app, a free download is available here.
January 16, 2013
The votes have been cast and counted, the campaign offices have been packed up. But things are just getting started in D.C. as the city prepares for a rush of excitement for Barack Obama’s second inauguration, January 21. More than a million people sought a spot near the Capitol to witness his first inauguration in 2009. For his second, Obama is sure to bring out the crowds again and all of D.C. is gearing up for inauguration day, from hotels to restaurants, including Ben’s Chili, which expects to serve 1,000 gallons of its famous chili the week of Obama’s swearing in, according to NBC.
You might not be running for office any time soon, but you can still win big this weekend with the help of our editors.
Conveniently situated around the Mall, the Smithsonian offers a wealth of presidential pomp and history to help get you up to speed for the big day, from Bill Clinton’s saxophone to Thomas Jefferson’s desk. Since this is the land of the free after all, we’ll be offering our custom inauguration-themed app for most smartphones for free with step-by-step tours to the best of the collections and exhibits. The tour includes stately highlights at the American History Museum, Natural History Museum, American Indian Museum, National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum. From the gowns of inaugural balls past to the hall of presidential portraits, the tour will get you geared up for the festivities.
On Jan. 21, all Smithsonian museums will operate on their normal schedules, with the following exceptions:
• The Renwick will be closed.
• The National Museum of the American Indian will be closed because of its proximity to the swearing-in ceremony.
• The Castle will open at 7:30 a.m.
• The Hirshhorn, the Ripley Center, the National Museum of African Art, and the Freer and Sackler Galleries will open at 8 a.m.
The museums on the south side of the National Mall will be accessible from Independence Avenue only. The museums on the north side of the National Mall will be accessible from both Madison Drive and Constitution Avenue.
More good news, the bathrooms will be available. And if you’re feeling peckish, you can get food at the Air and Space Museum (McDonald’s McCafe, Boston Market and Donato’s Pizza), Natural History Museum (Atrium Cafe, Cafe Natural and Fossil Cafe), American History (Stars and Stripes Cafe and Constitution Cafe) and the Smithsonian Castle’s Cafe and Coffee Bar.
For more information on the when, where and how to get there, view our inauguration at the Smithsonian page.
And if the inauguration tour leaves you curious about what else the Smithsonian has to offer, upgrade to our full visitors guide for just 99 cents. The app includes interactive postcards (starring you wearing the Hope Diamond or Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers, or other fun items from the collections) as well as custom tours for history buffs, art lovers and even a three-hour tour for the brave of heart and swift of feet. One of our own former interns tried to conquer the tall task:
November 22, 2012
Friday, November 23: ZooLights
It’s that time of year at last, when we get to see all of our favorite Zoo creatures as giant, light-up sculptures! That’s right, folks, ZooLights is back at the National Zoo. So yeah, you can go and enjoy the wildlife and educational extras (and you should) but the real show starts at night when dazzling greens, yellows and reds bring the Zoo to life. The show attracts 100,000 visitors each year. And new this year, the Conservation Carousel done in the grand tradition of old-fashioned carousels with handcrafted representations of the Zoo’s animal icons. Model trains, snowless tubing and plenty of photo opportunities, ZooLights entertains young and old. Admission is free. Parking $9 FONZ members,
$16 nonmembers. Begins Friday 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. National Zoo.
Saturday, November 24: Booksigning with Mary Savig, Handmade Holiday Cards
Author Mary Savig will be signing her book, Handmade Holiday Cards from 20th-Century Artists. With 190 reproductions of holiday cards straight from the Archives of American Art’s collections, the book is an historical tour of commonplace commercial graphic design. From the Mondrian-inspired abstractions to Japanese prints, the collection provides an alternative take on holiday greetings with designs by famous artist, including Josef Albers, John Lennon and Yoko Ono and Robert Motherwell. Talk with the author about her research process and maybe get some ideas for your own holiday card. Free. 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. The Castle.
Sunday, November 25: Metaphysical Baseball
David Stinson will be at the American History Museum signing copies of his book, Deadball, A Metaphysical Baseball Novel, about a minor league player possessed by visions of baseball greats gone by. Driven to the point of obsession, he begins traveling the country to see for himself the vanished stadiums and places that made baseball history. A novel thriller, the book also incorporates plenty of baseball history that fans will appreciate and enjoy. Free. 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. American History Museum.