The Smithsonian Castle: An Allegory

by Jerry Leibowitz

“He who comprehends the Smithsonian Castle, comprehends the universe…”  

                                                                              An old Washington proverb possibly attributed to Joseph Alsop

see Gore Vidal, The Smithsonian Institution, a work of fiction[1]

“What were they thinking when they dug that hole…”

Graham Parker[2]

Looking back, we know that 1846 was another year that America did not solve the issues that would ultimately lead it to civil war and near destruction. But at the time, for many, America in the 1840s was a land of great opportunity.  Yes, there were disagreements among everyone in Washington… everyone in the country…everyone in the world.  There was growing distrust if not hatred between parts of the country as to the core and meaning of the nation, although until 1848 those disagreements found an uneasy political truce[3]. American democracy was threatened by petty squabbles between rich and poor, intellectual and populist, those perceived as natives and those perceived as foreigners. Yet, the concept of Manifest Destiny had taken hold and, rightly or not,  many Americans were again feeling part of something great.[4] Immigrants were pouring in from Europe for the good life in America, just as many Americans were heading west for a better life in the territories and beyond.  Men of Science and the Arts were making great advances and producing great works which were beginning to give the country a wonderful new national character. All this came into focus in 1846 because of a good thing; plans were to be submitted for the design of a great building in accordance with a huge bequest from James Smithson to build an institution in Washington for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.[5] What kind of building would not only fulfill the bequest but also create something lasting that might help lead the country in its best direction? The answer to James Renwick, Jr. was to build the Castle. Possibly the most beloved yet most misunderstood piece of architecture in the history of the world. The Castle is an allegory, an artistic statement on the condition of the country, or perhaps, I dare say, even the condition of the universe.

By historic definition, a castle is a building which serves two functions. A castle is a residence and a fortress.[6] Invariably it was built by the Lord of the Manor who controlled some expanse of land around it. At perilous times would serve as protection for “a great man, his family, his guests, his household and retainers. “[7] It is often thought that the military purpose of a castle is purely defensive. In fact “the fundamental military purpose of that stronghold is offensive rather than defensive, to control the surrounding countryside…”[8] Is then the Smithsonian Castle just a fanciful castle-like structure or is it a functional castle in any true sense of that word? Is it a residence? What is its offensive purpose?

It is possible to point to the War of 1812 and the burning of Washington D.C. in 1814 to assume a military aspect to the Smithsonian Castle. Not much had changed in Washington between 1814 and 1846. It was still a small town with little military protection. The thought of Dolley Madison running from a deserted White House carrying some of our national treasures must have been on the minds of some who took part in the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution. Several influential members of the newly created Smithsonian Board of Regents[9] and Building Committee were men of military backgrounds, including former members of the Army Corp of Engineers who were familiar with fortress construction.[10] Among other purposes, this building was intended to house a museum which would hold our great national treasures.[11] Some consideration had to be given to the idea that it had to be defensively secure. Was there to be the offensive purpose of this building? Look at the Smithson Will and the Smithsonian charter. Its offensive role was to repel  ignorance through the increase and diffusion of knowledge.  Understand this purpose and you begin to understand the Castle.

What was the residential aspect of this Castle? From its earliest inception apartments were built within the Castle to house its ranking executive, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and perhaps some visiting scholars. The first Secretary of the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry, lived in the Castle with his family from 1855 to his death in 1878.[12] The Castle did serve to protect him from the horrors of war that later engulfed the nation, with much of the fighting taking place on nearby battlefields.  This Castle was not constructed for a Lord, bureaucrat or a politician. Joseph Henry was generally considered to be the leading American scientist of the era. The great Lord of this manor was not to be someone who owned the Castle through an accident of birth, or even bravery in battle. He was to be the great man of achievement, Chief Increaser and Diffuser of Knowledge.  Under its charter, it was Science and Art and the treasures of the nation that were to live in and be protected by the Castle. Like all other castles, the Smithsonian Castle was a residential fortress, although arguably as much in an allegorical sense as in actual one.

By the time James Renwick, Jr. submitted his plan for what is now the Smithsonian Castle in 1846, there were already plans drawn for a structure that looked like a castle. In 1841, Robert Mills, an architect of several neoclassical government buildings and official Architect of Public Buildings of the United States, drew such plans for an entity called “The Institution for the Promotion of Science and Useful Arts,” which hoped to take control of the Smithsonian project.[13] Although their bid for control failed, the idea that there should be a large Castle-like multipurpose structure survived despite the many countervailing views that the money would be better spent on projects which increased and diffused knowledge rather than building an expensive structure that would only serve a local purpose.[14] Congress incorporated the multipurpose view into its enabling legislation,[15] and the notion of a multipurpose structure was embraced by Robert Dale Owen, an important member of Congress who was Chairman of the building committee.[16] Owen, an early American utopian, wanted a large structure which would be practical to the masses, yet without ornamentation which might be perceived as impractical and un-American. David Dale Owen, Robert’s brother and a noted geologist,  submitted his own plan for a Castle, since lost, and successfully advocated for the use of red sandstone from a nearby quarry in Maryland.[17] However, by 1846, there was enough clamor among the community of architects that such a prized commission might be awarded without a fair process that a decision was made to open the process to bids from the leading architects of the time.[18]

I digress to offer that there are (at least) three great mysteries to the Smithsonian Castle. The first is where James Smithson got the money for such a huge bequest and why he made that bequest to a country that he had never visited. His oft-told story is that  he was an illegitimate son of a great Lord in England, although of limited inheritance and income. He had a notorious gambling problem. He fancied himself as a great man of science, an assessment apparently not shared by many in the scientific community. His fortune, whatever it was,  was intended by his will to be passed to a nephew provided that nephew died leaving children. When the nephew died childless in 1835, an interesting international adventure culminated in the sum of over $500,000.00 (real money then, source unknown!) being paid into accounts in the United States  in accordance with the alternate bequest in Smithson’s will.[19]

The second mystery is the unusual nature of the great fire of 1865, which destroyed part of the upper floor of the completed structure. Although there are accepted answers to these mysteries, none of the answers would survive even a cursory examination by our modern conspiracy theorists. The accepted notion that workers accidently caused the fire by the improper venting of an old stove brought into a work area on the upper floors defies logic. Joseph Henry was so concerned about fire safety that he established numerous rules to assure that there would be no fire.[20] In an interesting juxtaposition of mysteries, I note that the papers of James Smithson were stored in that very location of the building and were lost in the fire. With the fire went most any possibility that we may learn where Smithson got his money from and why he gave it to a country he had never visited, for an Institution he would never see.[21]

The third mystery was how James Renwick Jr. won the commission to be the architect for the Smithsonian Building. In 1846, Renwick was 28 years old and had designed all of two major buildings, both gothic revival churches in New York City. Much of his work history had been as an engineer on the Croton Reservoir which supplied drinking water to New York City.[22]  Although, it is true that both Grace Church and Calvary Church were (and remain) magnificent examples of gothic revival architecture, it is unlikely that these examples of his work propelled Renwick past all the leading architects of the day who wanted this commission. But Renwick did have one thing that the others did not have, a father who was a leading scientist, builder, and well respected Professor at Columbia College. It is often said that James Renwick Jr. was trained as an engineer and self taught as an architect. This is not exactly true. Although Architecture was not a recognized subject at Columbia College, James Renwick, Jr. learned his science and engineering from his professor there, who happened to be Renwick pere, James Renwick, Sr. When Renwick fils attended Columbia as a teen, his father was already the author of a text on Mechanics[23] and had already translated a book on warfare and fortifications from the French[24], a people who knew a bit about the subject through their constant struggles on their Eastern and Western Fronts. We know from a Scrap Book of James Renwick, Jr.,  although probably of later origin, that he had a fascination with the castles of Europe.[25] Between his father, who had worked closely with at least one influential member of  the Building Committee[26]and greatly impressed another[27], and his intellectual capacity and knowledge of castles, somehow the competition was wired in favor of James Renwick, Jr. to the chagrin and distain of other architects who bristled at the procedure and the choice[28].

I submit that James Renwick Jr. brought several talents to the project that must have convinced the deciding members of the building committee that he was their guy. He brought unbridled intellectual curiosity and knowledge of European Architecture of the grandest scale, clearly learned at his father’s knee and at the Columbia Library where he undoubtedly spent much of his youth[29]. He brought an engineer’s sense of the ability to get a project done despite natural and manmade impediments. Most importantly, he was an American, born and bred, which was quite rare for an Architect or scientist of the early 19th Century, (although Mills too was American born). Renwick  brought a sense of what the building could mean to the young country. Although there is no proof of any such discussion, it is my sense that Renwick knew and somehow conveyed the notion that the building itself, even with its statutory limitations, could be a unique work of art which could define and propel the American experience…Smithsonian Castle as allegory.

In the early 19th century, many considered the leading American man of letters to be Washington Irving, author of Rip Van Winkle, perhaps the first and greatest of all American allegories. Considered by many to be the father of the American short story if not the father of American literature, Washington Irving was a very close family friend of the Renwicks, having been bailed out at business at least once by a young James Renwick, Sr.[30] Although Irving spent much of his time in Europe, when he was in America he was a regular visitor to the Renwick household[31], including the period in the 1830’s when a young James Renwick Jr. was living with his parents and learning his arts and sciences at Columbia College. Although there is no mention of the Renwick children in any of Irving’s collected letters, many of which were famously written to Henry Brevoort, the uncle of James Renwick, Jr., it seems certain that Renwick fils would have had a knowledge of and an intimate connection to the works of Washington Irving, including his use of allegory in Rip Van Winkle.  Interestingly, much of Washington Irving’s early work was derided on occasion as being too “borrowed” from European folklore to be a truly American literature, just as the buildings  of James Renwick, Jr. are occasionally derided as being too “borrowed” from European sources to be an American art form. I suggest that what James Renwick, Jr. learned from this expert was how to use symbols in his craft and the unique power of the metaphor and allegory in art.

An examination of the Castle today enables one to begin to understand what James Renwick was trying to accomplish in its construction. Despite the fire of 1865, several renovations,  and the many forces which always influence the construction of a building, there is general agreement that the exterior of the Castle as it exists today is much how the architect envisioned it. [32]Upon first viewing the Castle under construction, the noted 19th century social reformer, Dorothea Dix, famously called it “a monstrous pile of misshapen towers, arches, columns, etc…” As if that were a bad thing. Did she not realize that in her expression of dissonance she was uttering a statement of the purpose of the building? It was to be a physical embodiment of the great American motto…E  Pluribus Unum…Out of Many, One. It is often noted that the Castle contains numerous towers, each of which is different from the others. Is this not a statement of diversity, whether it be the diversity of the states, or perhaps the diversity of the many people which populated the young country?  The success of the Smithsonian Castle as a piece of Architectural Art lies in whether Renwick has successfully taken the incredible diversity of the land, its people, and perhaps its universe and created One Thing by molding them into one unified structure.

Examine first the two North towers, commonly considered as the main entrance to the Castle. Immediately to the right of the Mall entrance is the largest tower of the Castle, known as the clock tower for its four-sided clock built in accordance with Renwick’s original design. Above the clock is an octagonal lookout, reminiscent of a lighthouse, which diffuses light to a dark world. Above the octagonal lookout is a walkout where historically many scientific experiments on wind and meteorology were undertaken. In this allegory, this tower is the representation of Science. It is the tallest tower perhaps in tribute to the benefactor of the Institution, James Smithson, who fancied himself as a great man of science. From Renwick’s father, a Professor of Chemistry at Columbia College, to Joseph Henry, Professor of Chemistry at Princeton who in 1846 was recently selected as the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, to Alexander Dallas Bache, great grandson of Benjamin Franklin and professor of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Building Committee of the Smithsonian Institution, America’s great men of science were peddling science as the great hope of the time. If the institution was going to fulfill Smithson’s mandate, its highest concern had to be to increase and diffuse Science for the betterment of mankind.

Just to the left of the North entrance, and similar and only slightly shorter than the Clock Tower is the Tower that represents the Arts. The mandate from Congress to the Regents of the newly formed Institution, and therefore the marching orders of Building Committee was to build a structure “without ornamentation”.  Renwick had to work within this constraint. This tower takes the basic structure of the Clock Tower, removing the “scientific” references of the clock and the lighthouse,  and adds minimal ornamentation including a top consisting of a sloped roof. It is far more fanciful and less useful than its nearby sister. One of the mandates from Congress insisted that the Smithsonian Institution be used as an art museum, a place to gather and spread the work of great American and International arts. From Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson down to men like Samuel Morse and James Renwick, Sr. it was understood by Renwick that the diffusion of the Arts is what gives the country what we would now call its soul. To Renwick, who studied science and loved art[33], these two towers must have represented everything that the Smithsonian could bring to the modern world.

Approaching the Castle from its main entrance on the mall a visitor is greeted by these two large Towers separated by the entrance to the building. Above the entrance is the large rose window which, at its most elemental,  serves to provide light to the interior. Why a circular window when other choices would serve an equal practical function? “The symbolist regards the circle aesthetically, and he chooses a circular form as a symbol of perfection and eternal tranquility and peace.”[34] The entrance to the Castle is a statement of dedication to the Arts and Sciences and their joinder on the highest planes of perfection, tranquility and peace. It is peace and unity through the ideals of Science and Art that the north entrance of the Castle was offering to diffuse to our chaotic world.

The South entrance, generally considered to be the rear of the building offers a different notion. A visitor is greeted by a robust battlement, a representation of the military or force. That this battlement faces the Potomac and further South may have been a premonition of the troubles that were to come. It may have indicated support for the notion that unless protection existed behind the beauty of the Arts and Sciences, all great knowledge was vulnerable to attack. This battlement may have been a great tribute to those in the military who protect from behind the scenes and who supported the building of the Castle. While actually providing some defense, the battlement also represents the idea of defense and its importance to the young country.

Above the battlement is a command tower, which houses a stairway to its roof. Perhaps this represents the unique American idea of civilian control of the military as it lets one look down on the battlement. Perhaps it stands for the Presidency itself as its height and central location give it strength and importance but its skinny nature next to the massive battlement gives it an air of weakness and vulnerability. Perhaps it stands for the entire government of the United States, centrally located but not that critical to the whole and dependant on other American institutions for its power and significance.

The crosses on the tower to the southwest of the battlement represent religion in America. In European castles, windows made of crosses often appeared on castles. It would seem that the historic idea was to invoke the protection of the Lord for the castle while one used the window for offensive purposes of a lookout or for weapon placement. An 1846 Mills design plan prominently contained such crosses.[35] The size and location of this tower in Renwick’s design reduces their significance from the Mills design as if to signify that although religion was important, it was just one aspect of the American experience. Or, perhaps, since religion was not a part of the Smithsonian charter, Renwick included this tower because he felt that the building could not be an allegorical representation of the America he knew without some reference to its religions. Remember, this architect had basically previously designed but two buildings, and both were Protestant churches. Renwick later proved that it was faith, not religion, that guided his work when he went on to design his Catholic masterpiece in the 1850’s, a striking feat for a Protestant architect.[36]

It has been suggested that the design of the Castle was intended to invoke the atmosphere of an English University.[37] If this is true it is only true as to the Eastern wing which is of plain rectangular design and highly compartmentalized inside. It was here that the offices and research facilities were intended to be housed. In essence, it was intended to be the practical side of the Castle. As it was built first and used first, it easily could represent the industrious Eastern part of the United States.

The Western wing of the Castle evokes a whole different atmosphere. The most western room carries the red sandstone design inside and merges it with a red wooden interior to create one of the most magnificent rooms in the world. It has been said to be chapel like, and while that may be true I find it more evocative of the red hued west of Monument Valley or the Grand Canyon. In the 1840’s, America was obsessed with the West, so much so that James Polk won the presidency in 1844 on the one issue which unified Americans, that it was its manifest destiny to extend its borders to the Pacific Ocean. Although the gold rush did not begin in earnest until 1848, by 1846 adventurous sorts had already discovered the incredible virtues of the American West. In fact it was in 1838 when Horace Greeley first wrote “If any young man is about to commence the world, we say to him, publicly and privately, Go to the West”.[38] It is that wondrous notion of the American West  that is exquisitely quantified in Renwick’s Western wing.

In essence then, the Smithsonian Castle may be considered an allegorical retelling of the American story from  the 1840’s[39]. It takes the beautiful confusion which is America, its politics, its land, and its people, and sees it and depicts it as part of one great plan. As the Castle was being built and scrutinized, the building’s apologist, Robert Dale Owen, tried to make a case for the Castle to be considered as perhaps the first example of a new American Architecture.[40] This conclusion would be laughable if it was not so oft repeated. After all, how many castles have been built in your neighborhood since 1846? No, the Smithsonian Castle is more Thomas Cole than Fallingwater. It is an allegory in the long line of the Hudson River School of storytelling, where folklorists, writers and especially artists occasionally reach fantastic conclusions. By the 1840’s, it was obvious that the implacable problems gnawing at America were not going to be solved politically. Perhaps, in a more perfect world, instead of by war they could have been better solved by science through innovation or artistically through cleansing. When James Renwick Jr. built the Castle in Washington, America was still a country where it was perceived that all things were possible. When it was built, the Castle meant something. It was an expression of hope. Sadly, after the great war between the states, it seems that the Castle must mean something else. Maybe not. Comprehend the Castle and perhaps you comprehend the Universe.

[1] Gore Vidal, The Smithsonian Institution, A Novel (New York:Random House, 1998) 4.

[2] The Other Side of the Reservoir, Don’t Tell Columbus, Bloodshot Records, 2007.

[3] Donald A. Rakestraw, “The Lasting Significance of America’s War with Mexico” in Antebellum America 1784-1850, volume 4 of American History By Era ed. William Dudley, 260-262. Farmington Hills, Mi: Greenhaven Press, 2003. Originally published in  “Interpretive Essay on the War With Mexico, ” Events That Changed America in the Nineteenth Century, edited by John E. Findling and Frank W. Thackeray, Westport, Ct: Greenwood Press, 1997.

[4] Timothy Foote, “America in 1846” in Antebellum America 1784-1850, volume 4 of American History By Era ed. William Dudley. Farmington Hills, Mi: Greenhaven Press, 2003. Originally published as “America in 1846: A Country on the Move, ” Smithsonian, vol.27, April 1996, pp. 39-50.

[5] Will of James Smithson. See Heather Ewing, The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian, (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2007) 306-308.

[6] R. Allen Brown, The Architecture of Castles A Visual Guide (London: Fact On File Publications, 1984) 7.

[7] Brown at p. 8.

[8] Brown at p. 8.

[9] Congress vested responsibility for the administration of the Smithsonian Institution in a Board of Regents, consisting of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Vice President of the United States, three members of the United States Senate, three members of the United States House of Representatives, and nine citizens.

[10] Among them were Alexander Dallas Bache who was a Lieutenant in the Corp of Engineers. He had erected coastal fortifications and for a time was a professor at West Point. Joseph G. Totten was Chief Engineer of the United States Army. Roger B. Taney, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, had been an Acting Secretary of War.

[11] Enabling Act of the Smithsonian Institution(9 Stat. 102).

[12] Richard E. Stamm, The Castle, An Illustrated History of the Smithsonian Building (Washington: Smithsonian Books, Second Edition 2012)  49.

[13] Stamm, The Castle, 11. This section is entitled “A Symbol for the Institution” and is authored by Cynthia R. Field.

[14] Joseph Henry espoused this view. See Stamm and Field, The Castle, 18.

[15] (9 Stat. 102)

[16] Stamm and Field, The Castle, 14.

[17] Stamm and Field, The Castle, 21.

[18] Stamm and Field, The Castle, 15.

[19] See Heather Ewing, The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian, (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2007).

[20] The huge additional expenses that would have made the building fireproof  were rejected and instead Henry promulgated a set of rules to safeguard the building from fire.See Stamm, The Castle, 28, 91. The section of the first cite is entitled “Changes With the Times” and is authored by Sharon C. Park.

[21] See Ewing, The Lost World of James Smithson, Prologue.

[22] See “Murray Hill and the Reservoir” The New York Times, February 27, 1898.

[23] James Renwick, The Elements of Mechanics, (Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, Chestnut-Street 1832).

[24] H. Lallemand, A Treatise on Artillery: To Which is Added, A Summary of Military Reconnoitring, of Fortification, of the Attack and Defence of Places, and of Castramentation. Translated from the Manuscript of the Author, By James Renwick. (New York: C. S. Van Winkle, 1826).

[25] Renwick Scrap Book, estimated dates 1853-1870.

[26] James Renwick Sr. worked with Alexander Dallas Bache on the solving engineering problems relating to the mapping of the United States coastline. See NOAA Central Library, National Oceanographic Data Center, ” Bache’s Early Years”

[27] See Report of the Committee of the Franklin Institute, on the Inclined Plane of Professor James Renwick. Extract from the Report of General S. Bernard, and Lieutenant Colonel Joseph G. Totten(of the United States Engineering Department) on the Morris Canal. Published in the Franklin Journal and American Mechanics Magazine, Volume II No. 5, December 1826. Edited by Dr. Thomas P. Jones, Published by Judah Dobson, 1826. This report, coauthored by Totten, a building committee member, called Renwick, Sr.’s work bold, ingenious and novel.

[28] See Stamm and Field, The Castle, 18.

[29] Edward Sabine Renwick, the younger brother of James Renwick, Jr., wrote of his own disciplined upbringing and broad education in “Memoir”, 1883,  transcription located in the Selma Rattner Research Papers On James Renwick, 2005.006 Box 05, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library Drawings and Archives, Columbia University. Although not about James Renwick, Jr., this memoir presents the best evidence of the education of James referred to in other sources.

[30]Letter from Washington Irving to Henry Brevoort dated March 15, 1816.  As collected by Pierre Munroe Irving, The Life and Letters of Washington Irving, Volume I (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1883) 263.

[31] Supposedly a room was built into the Renwick house for use by Washington Irving when he was in NYC.

[32] Stamm and Park, The Castle, 26.

[33] Renwick died with massive art collection which is in itself an interesting story, untold here.

[34] Paul Frankl, Gothic Architecture, (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1962) 238.

[35] Stamm and Field, The Castle, 14.

[36] On April 26, 2012, I was truly honored to walk through St. Patrick’s Cathedral with its rector, The Reverend Monsignor Robert T. Ritchie, who pointed out two chapels and part of the pulpit designed by James Renwick, Jr.

[37] Robert Dale Owen, Hints on Public Architecture (New York: Putnam, 1849).

[38] Aug. 25, 1838 issue of the newspaper New Yorker.

[39] One cannot underestimate the influence of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America, Volume 2(1840) on American thinkers of the 1840’s. His chapters on art, science and literature and references to architecture must have dared both architects and their patrons into building a more American story.

[40] Robert Dale Owen, Hints on Public Architecture (New York: Putnam, 1849).

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