The Smithsonian Institution Building, commonly known as the “Castle,” houses the Smithsonian Institution’s administrative offices, as well as the Information Center. It is considered the “anchor” of the National Mall. Its construction was based on a design by 19th century American architect James Renwick, Jr. and was completed in 1855. In the ensuing decades, museums and government buildings were built around it. The crypt of James Smithson, the main benefactor and namesake of the Institution, is located in the north entrance to the building. A statue of Joseph Henry, Smithsonian’s first Secretary, is located outside on the Mall. The Castle was deemed a Historic Landmark in 1977.
Home to the Smithsonian Information Center, the Castle also contains several permanent exhibits. The Information Center can answer visitor questions, and also features a scale model of the city, along with information on the history of the Institution. The Smithson crypt can be found at the North Entrance, in its own chapel-like room which contains some of Smithson’s personal belongings. There is also an exhibit panel that describes the history of the west wing of the Castle, from its time as a library to its time as a dining room. Visitors can tour the Children’s Room as well, which showcases the original decoration from 1901 in fully restored form, and Schermer Hall, with its Romanesque-style and barrel-vaulted ceiling.
Admission to the Smithsonian Castle is free. It is open every day of the year except for December 25, and its hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. daily. There is no public parking facility, but handicapped spaces are available. Parking on the street is limited, so using public transportation is advised. If using Metrorail, get off at the Smithsonian stop on the Orange and Blue lines (Mall exit). If using Metrobus, take the 32, 34 or 36 routes.
Due to its central location on the National Mall, the Castle is surrounded by landmarks and attractions. The Freer Gallery of Art is right next door, and the National Gallery of Art is a mere two blocks away. The National Museum of American History and the National Museum of Natural History are in very close proximity as well. The White House, United States Botanic Garden, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial are all a short walk away. Downtown DC features a variety of restaurants, including popular spots such as Jaleo and Fogo de Chao, conveniently located near the Mall.
- The Smithsonian Castle is built from red sandstone from Seneca Creek, MD in the Norman style, which is a combination of Roman and Gothic styles.
- The Castle housed all Smithsonian operations, including research and administrative offices, lecture and exhibit halls and a library until 1881.
- In 1901, DC’s first children’s museum was installed in the Castle’s South Tower Room.
- The first Secretary of the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry, used the Castle as a home and office.
- In the late 1880s, the South Yard behind the Castle served as the beginning of the National Zoological Park.