Arago: 15-cent Smithsonian

15-cent Smithsonian

"Every man is a valuable member of society who by his observations, researches, and experiments procures knowledge for men," stated English scientist James Smithson (1765-1829), prominent researcher in the fields of chemistry, mineralogy, and geology. Raised in England, James Smithson devoted his life to the proliferation of scientific knowledge to the masses. No greater example of his benevolence exists than in his final will and testament, in which Smithson allocated nearly all of his estate — $508,318 — to the government of the United States of America with instructions "to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men." Although numerous theories exist, no one knows for sure why he made this bequest.

Considerable controversy arose in England and in the United States over the gift. Richard Rush, an American lawyer and diplomat, traveled to England to represent the United States in court and retrieve the endowment. For ten years officials in the United States heatedly debated how exactly the funds should be allocated, and on August 10, 1846, President James K. Polk signed into law a bill establishing the Smithsonian Institution. The bill sanctioned the construction of a "suitable building of plain and durable materials and structure, without unnecessary ornament, and of a sufficient size, and with suitable rooms or halls, for the reception and arrangement, upon a liberal scale of objects. . ." The result was one of the most highly regarded architectural masterpieces in the country, the Smithsonian 'Castle.'

Officials chose James Renwick, Jr., to design the building. Though Renwick had no professional training in architecture, he used his historical knowledge and his engineering education to design a Gothic Revival structure reminiscent of the cloistered and scholarly atmosphere of English colleges. Based on the drawings in German Gothic and Romanesque copybooks, the red sandstone structure is known for its asymmetric composition, collection of ramparts, towers and chimneys, and its unique windows and stone capitals. Renwick intended the building to resemble European architecture, but he incorporated new styles in order to contest the trend of American builders imitating English structures.

Located on the edge of the National Mall, the Smithsonian 'Castle' originally housed offices, lecture halls, libraries, and laboratories. Today it is the administration building and information center for the Smithsonian's nineteen museums, research facilities, and galleries.

Walter D. Richards designed the 15-cent Smithsonian stamp of the 1980 American Architecture Series. The stamps of this series were among the last American commemorative stamps produced on a Giori printing press.


"Smithsonian Institution Building, the Castle." Smithsonian.

"James Smithsonian." Smithsonian Institution Archives.

"James Renwick." Smithsonian Institution Archives.

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