On Hold

What to do with the Smithsonian's shuttered Arts and Industries Building


Arts and Industries, closed to the public since 2004, with the Capitol in the distance

Credit: Shawn Richardson

It was a coming-out celebration for a new president and also for a building. On March 4, 1881, a crowd gathered in the nation's capital hours before James Garfield's inaugural ball. As onlookers jostled for position along a walkway near Ninth Street, hoping to glimpse the president, they admired the venue chosen for the ball: the newly built and nearly complete National Museum, the second building constructed by the Smithsonian Institution. A calcium light installed on the tower of Smithsonian's flagship building (now called the Castle) illuminated the new structure like "a crystal palace," as The Washington Evening Star raved.

After Garfield was whisked into the building, about 7,000 ticket holders entered.  The floor was not yet complete, so workers had laid down wooden planks. Bunting hung from the balconies, garlands were draped from the rafters, and the American flag and those of the then-38 states appeared on the walls. A hundred-piece band played in the south gallery. Dancing began at 11 p.m. and continued until the early morning.

On a recent afternoon, music was again heard at the site, with carnival tunes blaring from a carousel across the street. But the mood at the National Museum, now known as the Arts and Industries Building, was nothing like the celebratory spirit of Garfield's ball. Groups of tourists walked up to the north entrance, found the doors locked, then read aloud a sign posted there: The Arts and Industries Building Is Closed for Renovation. A man approached with his son. "Old Glory used to be in there," the father said as he peered into the windows. "Lots of other stuff, too."

Indeed, Old Glory, which inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the War of 1812; the Spirit of St. Louis; the plane the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk; gowns worn by the first ladies—all once resided in the Arts and Industries Building. Now the only things on display are water stains and crumbling plaster. In January 2004, the Smithsonian closed the building to the public, claiming that Arts and Industries' deteriorating condition made it unsafe. This May, the National Trust placed the building on its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. By August, the Smithsonian still had no renovation program for the building, leading some preservationists to wonder whether it will ever reopen.

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