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Smithsonian Castle IN Washington DC

The Castle was designed by architect James Renwick, Jr. from New York. He also designed the St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and the Renwick Gallery near the White House in Washington D.C. His design of the Castle was chosen through a nationwide design competition in 1846.

First time in DC? Don’t miss this: the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall looks like it emerged from a fairy tale with turrets and spires and cut-glass windows. The best way to explore Washington DC often begins right here. Built in 1846, the Castle was the very first of the 11 Smithsonian museums found today on the National Mall. Like the castle itself, the twists and turns of how the Smithsonian Institution came into existence also seem like a fairy tale – but it’s all true.

In 1765 a love affair was going on in England between two wealthy aristocrats, the 1st Duke of Northumberland, Hugh Smithson, and a moneyed widow, Elizabeth Hungerford Macie. The result was a baby boy born in secret in France. His mother gave him her last name Macie. The James Smithson who eventually funded the Smithsonian Institute originally was named James Macie. To confuse matters more, the father of the baby soon married into another of England’s noble families and then changed his last name to Percy to reflect his new wife’s heritage.

Though his father refused to acknowledge him, James Macie never wanted for money. He lived as a gentleman and went to Oxford – his mother took care of everything. Eventually, his mother remarried another wealthy gentleman, and her estate grew substantially through her life.

Upon his mother’s death, James Macie changed his name to Smithson and inherited half of his mother’s fortune. James Smithson became a fellow of the prestigious Royal Society with a deep interest in chemistry and minerals. He traveled all over Europe in search of rare specimens. Although he never visited the New World, he admired the United States from afar. At one time Smithson wrote: The best blood of England flows in my veins. On my father’s side, I am a Northumberland, on my mother’s I am related to kings; but this avails me not. My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and the Percys are extinct and forgotten.

Meanwhile in Washington, DC, by the early 1800’s botany was a hot topic. Most of our founding fathers were farmers and there was a deep interest in setting up a scientific organization headquartered in the Capitol to collect and develop plants. The National Mall would be an ideal location… but funding was a problem.

Smithson died in 1826 while on a trip to Italy. Five years later the United States learned that in Smithson’s will there were some very unusual provisions: his estate would go to his nephew, the illegitimate son of Smithson’s brother, but only if that nephew changed his last name to Hungerford (Smithson’s mother’s maiden name). Smithson’s will also stipulated that to inherit his nephew must marry and produce heirs. If this did not happen then Smithson’s estate would go to the United States of America to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.

In 1831 Smithson’s nephew died having never changed his name, married nor had children.

The United States Congress soon passed legislation to establish the Smithsonian Institution and President Jackson sent a diplomat to England to collect our inheritance – 105 sacks of gold, which at the time was worth $500,000.

To acknowledge the homeland of James Smithson, of one of tour greatest benefactors, the architecture of the original Smithsonian museum reflected English castles and universities. Smithson’s remains were moved from Italy and brought to the United States in 1904 accompanied by Alexander Graham Bell. Today there is special area inside the Smithsonian Castle, a marble vault where Smithson’s remains are interred.

The Smithsonian Castle was recently converted to a visitor’s center. If you are planning a trip to DC or find yourself on the National Mall the Smithsonian Castle offers a perfect central location where you can get in out of the heat or cold, charge cell phones, buy water or snacks and find bathrooms. The upper floors are administrative offices of the Smithsonian Institution.

memorial map