William Jones Rhees.

An account of the Smithsonian Institution, its founder, building, operations, etc. prepared from the reports of Prof. Henry to the regents, and other authentic sources online

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Online LibraryWilliam Jones RheesAn account of the Smithsonian Institution, its founder, building, operations, etc. prepared from the reports of Prof. Henry to the regents, and other authentic sources → online text (page 2 of 10)
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ecclesiastical, ever erected in this country.

The main building has in the center of its north front two towers, of which
the higher reaches an elevation of about 150 feet. On the south front is a

massive tower 37 feet
square and 91 feet high.
On the northeast corner
stands a double coinpanile
tower, 17 feet square and
117 feet high; at the
southwest corner an oc-
tagonal tower, in which is
a spiral stair case. There
are nine towers in all.

The entire length of
the building, from east to
west, is 447 feet. Its
greatest breadth is 160
feet. The east wing is
82 by 52 feet, and 42
feet high to the top ot' its
battlement; the west
wing, including its pro-
jecting apsis, is 84 feet
by 40, and 38 feet high,
and each of the connect-
ing ranges, including its
cloister, is 60 feet by 49
The main building is 205
feet by 57, and, to the
top of the corbel course,



The building is erected in a very substantial manner. The foundation walls
under the main central towers are 12 feet thick at bottom, gradually diminishing
to five feet six inches at the surface of the ground, and are sunk eight feet deep.
The thickness of the walls of the main building above the water table is two feet
and-a-half in the first story, and two feet in the second, exclusive of buttresses,
corbel courses, &c The walls of the wings are two feet thick ; of the central towers
three feet and a half thick in the first story, diminishing to two feet in the highest
story. The roofs are slated. The face of the building is finished in ashlar, laid
in courses from 10 to 15 inches in height, and having an average bed of nine

The material employed is a lilac gray variety of freestone, found in the new red
sandstone formation where it crosses the Potomac, near the mouth of Seneca
Creek, one of its tributaries, and about twenty -three miles above Washington.
When first quarried it is comparatively soft, working freely before the chisel and
hammer } but by exposure it gradually indurates, and ultimately acquires tough-
ness and consistency, that not only enables it to resist the changes of the atmos-
phere, but even the most severe mechanical wear and tear.

The corner-stone of the building was laid with Masonic ceremonies, on the first
of May, 1847, in the presence of President Polk, his Cabinet, and an immense
concourse of citizens and strangers. The Grand Master of Masons, who performed
the ceremony, wore the apron presented by the Grand Lodge of France to Wash-
ington, through La Fayette, and used the gavel employed by Washington when
he laid the first corner-stone of the Capitol of the United States. An oration was
delivered by the Hon. George Mifflin Dallas, the first Chancellor of the Smithsonian
Institution, and now United States Minister to Great Britain. In the course of his
remarks Mr. Dallas said: " When, at no distant day, I trust, it shall be seen
that within the walls of this building the truths of nature are forced by persever.
ing researches from their hidden recesses, mingled with the stock already hoarded
by genius and industry, and thence profusely scattered, by gratuitous lectures or
publications, for the benefit of all when it shall be seen that here universal
science finds food, implements, and a tribune art her spring to invention, her
studio, and her models ; and both shall have throngs of disciples from the ranks
of our people, emulous for enlightenment, or eager to assist then the condition of
our legacy will have been performed, and the wide philanthropy of Smithson have
achieved its aim."

The design, by James Renwick, Jr., of New York, consists of a main center
building, two stories high, and two wings, connected by intervening ranges; each
of these latter having, on the north or principal front, a cloister, with open
stone screen.

The first story of the main building consists of one large room, 200 feet by 50,
and 25 feet high, the ceiling of which is supported by two rows of columns ex-
tending the whole length ; at the middle of the space corresponding to the prin-
cipal entrances are two wing walls, by which, with the addition of screens, the
whole space may be divided into two large rooms, with a hall extending across the



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building between them. This story may be used for a library or a museum, or
for both, as the wants of the Institution may require. It is finished in a simple
but chaste style, and has received general commendation. It is one of the most
imposing rooms in this country, apart even from adaptation to its purposes.

The upper story is divided into three apartments without pillars a lecture-
room in the middle, and two rooms, each 50 feet square, on either side. The
one on the east is for apparatus, and for meetings of societies, committees, &c. ;
that on the west is now occupied by Stanley's Indian Gallery and other collections.

The whole arrangement of the upper part of the building is made with a view
to afford facilities for meetings of associations, which have for their object the
promotion, diffusion or application of knowledge. If at any time the space
now occupied by the lecture-room should be required for other purposes, the seats
and gallery may be removed, and the partition walls, which are unconnected with
the roof, may be taken down, and the whole upper story converted into a large hall.

Ji)e JLectyfe

The optic and acoustic properties of the lecture-room are unsurpassed by any
apartment, intended for the same purpose, in the United States. As has been
observed, it is situated in the second story of the main building; it is one hun-
cRd feet in length, and, by occupying part of the towers, a width of seventy-five
feet has been secured. The ceiling is twenty-five feet high, smooth and unbroken.



with the exception of an oval opening above to admit light on the platform. It
thus powerfully reflects the sound of the speaker's voice to the hearers, and being
so low, this reflection blends with the original sound and simply re-enforces it.
The general form of the room is fan-shaped, the speaker being near the handle
of the fan, on one side of the room. The walls behind and near "him are smooth
lath and plaster, giving a powerful but short resonance, which strengthens
his voice. Not being parallel, they reduce the reverberation, but send the sound
out from the speaker, to increase the volume of his voice until it reaches the fur-
thest part of the gallery. The multitude of surfaces directly in front of the
speaker gallery, pillars, stair-screens, and the seats of the audience prevent
reverberation. The scats are curved, so that each spectator faces the platform ;
and the floor is also curved, so that the back seats rise above the front not
quite so much as is required by thepanoptic curve of Professor Bache, but as much
as the size of the room will allow. The gallery is in the form of a horse-shoe. The
architecture of this room is due to Captain Alexander, of the corps of Topo-
graphical Engineers, who va-
ried the plan until the required
conditions were, as nearly as
possible, fulfilled. The room
will scat fifteen hundred persons,
and when crowded will contain
upwards of two thousand. Prof.
Henry presented a valuable
paper on acoustics to the Ameri-
can Association for the. Advance-
ment of Science, at its meeting
in Albany, August, 1856. It
gives an account of the princi-
ples on which the Smithsonian
lecture-room was constructed,
and the result of the observations
made by Capt. Meigs, Prof.
Bache, and Prof. Henry, in rela-
tion to the new rooms in the
extension of the Capitol. It
was published in the transac-
tions of the Association, and
in the Smithsonian Report for

The room in the second story
of the south tower is used for the
meetings of the Board of Re-
gents. The offices of the Secre-
REOP.XTS- ROOM. tary are in the north tower, im-


mediately in front of the lecture room ; the library is at the west end ; the natural
history department, chemical laboratory, exchange, and publication rooms, at the
east end of the building.

In the room used by the " Regents" and the "Establishment" as a hall for their
meetings, are now deposited the personal effects of James Smithson. Here may be
seen his trunks, umbrella, walking-cane, sword, plume, riding-whip, a set of silver
plate, a miniature chemical laboratory which he used when travelling, thermome-
ters, snuff box, scales, candlesticks, &c.

Hanging in this room is an original painting by Bergham, a rural scene,
the property of Smithson, a marble head of St. Cecilia, by Thorwalsden, &c.

There are also likenesses of Chief Justice Taney, Chancellor of the Institution,
Hon. Richard Rush, of Pennsylvania, and Senator Pearce, of Maryland, distin-
guished alike for their devotion to the interests of the Institution, of which they
have been Regents from its organization, and for their valuable public services.

Jfye JLS

This portion of the establishment has been well filled by purchase, donation,
the copyright law, and exchange. It now contains 25,000 very valuable vol-
umes, and is rapidly becoming of much value in its special sphere of usefulness.
In relation to it, the Secretary, in his report for 1855, says :

" It is the present intention of the Regents to render the Smithsonian Library
the most extensive and perfect collection of transactions and scientific works in
this country, and this it will be enabled to accomplish by means of its exchanges,
which will furnish it with all the current journals and publications of societies,
while the separate series may be completed in due time as opportunity and means
may offer. The Institution has already more complete sets of transactions of
learned societies than are to be found in the oldest libraries in the United States,
and on this point we speak on the authority of one of the first bibliographers of
the day. This plan is in strict accordance with the general policy of the Institution,
viz : to spend its funds on objects which cannot as well be accomplished by other
means, and has commended itself to those who are able to appreciate its merits,
and who are acquainted with the multiplicity of demands made upon the limited
income of the Smithsonian fund. In a letter, after a visit to Washington, the
bibliographer before alluded to remarks : ' My previous opinions as to the judicious-
ness of the system pursued by the Smithsonian Institution, in every respect, were
more than confirmed. I hope you will not change in the least. Your exchanges
will give you the most important of all the modern scientific publications, and
the older ones can be added as you find them necessary. The Library, I think ;
should be confined strictly to works of science/ '

Besides books, the Library contains engravings, maps, music, and other articles
connected with the art of printing. The collection of engravings and works upon




the history of art is believed to be one of the choicest in the country. It was
made by an American gentleman distinguished as a scholar no less than as a
statesman, with a special design of illustrating the process and resources of the
art of engraving, in all its branches, from its early masters to its present time.
This collection contains some of the best works of nearly every engraver of much
celebrity. There is one portfolio of the works of Albert Durer, containing twenty
engravings on copper and two on iron by his own hand and among them most
of his best and rarest works ; about sixty fine copies on copper, including the
famous seventeen by Marc Antonio ; thirteen different portraits of Durer, and a
large number of wood cuts engraved by him or under his inspection. Another port-
folio contains a large collection of the etchings of Rembrandt, including some of
his most beautiful pieces, particulary the " Christ Healing the Sick," an early
and fine impression. There is a portfolio of two hundred engravings and etchings,
by Claude Lorraine, Hollar, and Bega; a portfolio of superb portraits by Nanteuil,
Wille, Edelink, and others, among them a first impression of the " Louis XIV in


armor/' by Nanteuil ; a portfolio of prints from the old Italian masters, comprising
many that are extremely rare ; and another from the old German masters, containing
about one hundred prints, many of them scarce and of great beauty. There are,
besides, five portfolios of sheet engravings, including very choice prints. Among
them are thirty r one which are valued by Longhi at fifteen hundred dollars.

Among the galleries and published collections, are the " Musee Royal," in two
volumes folio, proofs before the letter, a superb copy ; Denon's " Monumens des
Arts du Dessin," in four volumes folio, of which only two hundred and fifty copies
were published ; Baillie's Works, one hundred plates, folio ; Thorwaldsen's
Works, four volumes, folio ; Hogarth's Works, folio, and the German edition in
quarto ; The Boydell Gallery, two volumes, folio ; Boydell's " Shakspeare Gal-
lery," a remarkably good copy, containing many proofs before the letter, numerous
etchings and several progressive plates ; Claude's " Liber Veritatis," an original
copy, three volumes, folio ; The Houghton Gallery, two volumes, folio ; Cham-
berlain's Drawings in the Royal Collection, one volume, folio; Rembrandt's
Drawings, one volume, quarto; Da Vinci's Drawings, one volume, quarto;
" Galerie de Florence ;" Angerstein Gallery ; Ancient Sculpture, by the Dilet-
tanti Society; Perrault's "Hommes Illustres;" Sadeler's Hermits; " Theuer-
dank," a fine copy of the very rare edition of 1519 ; Meyrick's Armor ; Hope's
Ancient Costumes, and more than one hundred volumes besides, mostly in folio
or quarto, either composed entirely of valuable engravings, or in which the text is
published for the sake of the illustrations of fine or decorative art.

The collection of critical and historical works, in the various departments of
the fine arts, comprises several hundred volumes of the best works in the English,
French, German, and Italian languages, including whatever is mostly needed by
the student of art in all its branches.

The Library is open to the public from 9 a. m. to 5 p. m. daily, except Sunday.

The busts in the Library represent the Hon. Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice
of the United States and Chancellor of the Institution ; Robert Fulton, Com-
modore Decatur, Joel Barlow, Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Webster, Milton, Thor-
walsden, and Benjamin Hallowell.

The visitor will find in the Reading-room, which adjoins the Library, the
leading periodicals, and particularly the scientific journals published in the world.

In this room may be seen a portrait of Smithson, representing him in the
costume of a student of Oxford, which was probably painted when he was not
more than twenty years of age. This portrait was purchased for thirty guineas,
for the Institution, by the Hon. Abbot Lawrence, from the widow of John Fitall,
a servant of Smithson mentioned in his will. There is also in possession of the
Institution a medallion of Smithson, in copper, taken in after life.

On the west porch, adjoining the Reading-room, are several idols from Central
America, presented to the Institution by E. G. Squier, late United States Minis-




ter to Nicaragua. The largest statue, carved in black basalt, was obtained from
the Island of Momotombita, in Lake Managua, where there was a temple or sacred
place. The figure with the sphinx-like head-dress is also from the same locality.
One or two of the other statues, by the Indians of the Pueblo of Subtiava, near
Leon, having been buried a great number of years, and the locality carefully con-
cealed, they are somewhat mutilated. A small group of these monuments exists
in the depths of the forest midway between Leon and the Pacific, which is still
secretly visited by the Indians for the performance of dances and other rites
pertaining to their primitive religion. The small figure resembling some animal
couchant was, until very recently, preserved on a remarkable rock on the side of
the volcano of Omatepec, and regarded with high veneration by the Indians. It
was only after many years of search that the priests were able to find and remove
it. The granite vase, distinguished by the ornaments called grecques by Hum-
boldt, (and which characterize the ruins at Mitla, in Mexico,) was dug up near
the city of Nicaragua. The spot had been a cemetery of the ancient inhabitants.



Another relic of the same material, and with a like style of ornament, accompanies
the vase, and was found in the same neighborhood. It seems to have been de-
signed as a pedestal for a small statue. There are also several vases, in which
the bones and ashes of the dead were packed after the decomposition of the flesh
or after burning.

The largest and most elaborate monuments in Nicaragua exist in the little
Island of Pensacola, near the base of the extinct volcano of Momobacho. They
weigh a number of tons each, and are distinguished as being wrought from blocks
of sandstone a material which is not found on the island. Two of the statues
of the Smithsonian collection are from the Island of Zapatero, in Lake Nicaragua,
where once existed one of the most imposing aboriginal temples of the country.
Here, among the ruins of the teocalli, or high-places of the former inhabitants,
were found entire statues, besides the fragments of many others, several broken
sacrificial stones, etc.

The Smithsonian Institution is now in possession of the best collection of the
larger North American and European mammalia, both skins and skeletons, to be
found in the United States. In birds it is only second to the collection of the
Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences the latter being without doubt the
most extensive and perfect now extant. Of fish the Smithsonian has a greater
number than is to be found in any cabinet, except that of Professor Agassiz.





It should be understood that the Smithsonian Institution does not enter upon
grounds already occupied, and therefore it is not an object to collect specimens
promiscuously, or those usually found in other museums. Hence the collection of
this Institution is not attractive to the general visitor and curiosity seeker; but the
student of natural history will here find much that will be sought in vain else-
where. Duplicate specimens are often exchanged for those in other collections,
and all the objects are open for the study and examination of those engaged in
this line of research. Applications for such facilities are numerous, and have al-
ways been granted. The preparation of most of the important papers on natural
history published within a few years in this country has been aided in this way
by the Institution.

The act of Congress establishing the Institution provides as follows :

SEC. 6. That, in proportion as suitable arrangements can be made for their reception, all
objects of art and of foreign and curious research, and all objects of natural history, plants,
and geological and mineralogical specimens belonging, or hereafter to belong, to the United
States, which may be in the city of Washington, in whosesoever custody the same may be,
shall be delivered to such persons as may be authorized by the Board of Regents to receive
them, and shall be arranged in such order, and so classed, as best facilitate the exam-
ination and study of them, in the building so as aforesaid to be erected for the Institution ;
and the Regents of said Institution !?hall afterwards, as new specimens in natural history,
geology, or minerology, may be obtained for the museum of the Institution, by exchange of
duplicate specimens belonging to the Institution, (which they are hereby authorized to
make,) or by any donation, which they may receive, or otherwise, cause such new specimens
to be also appropriately classed and arranged.


Under these provisions, tlie Institution has received and taken charge of such
government collections in mineralogy, geology, and natural history as have been
made since its organization. The amount of these has been very great, as all the
United States Geological, Boundary and Railroad Surveys, with the various topo-
graphical, military, and naval explorations, have been, to a greater or less extent,
ordered to make such collections as would illustrate the physical and natural his-
tory features of the regions traversed.

Of the collections made by thirty government expeditions, those of twenty-five
are now deposited with the Smithsonian Institution, embracing more than five-
sixths of the whole amount of materials collected. The principal expeditions thus
furnishing collections are the United States Geological Surveys of Doctors Owen,
Jackson, and Evans, and of Messrs. Foster and Whitney ; the United States and
Mexican Boundary Survey ; the Pacific Railroad Survey ; the Exploration of the
Yellow Stone, by Lieutenant Warren ; the Survey of Lieutenant Bryan ; the
United States Naval Astronomical Expedition ; the North Pacific Behring Straits
Expedition ; the Japan Expedition, and the Paraguay Expedition.

The Institution has also received, from other sources, collections of greater or
less extent, from various portions of North America, tending to complete the
government series.

The collections thus made, taken as a whole, constitute the largest and best*
series of the minerals, fossils, rocks, animals, and plants of the entire continent
of North America, in the world. Many tons of geological and mineralogical
specimens, illustrating the surveys throughout the West, are embraced therein.
There is also a very large collection of minerals of the mining regions of Northern
Mexico, and of New Mexico, made by a practical Mexican geologist, during a period
of twenty-five years, and furnishing indications of many rich mining localities
within our own borders, yet unknown to the American people.

It includes, also, with scarcely an exception, all the vertebrate animals of North
America, among them many specimens each of the Grizzly, Cinniman, and Black
Bears ; the Panther, Jaguar, Ocelot, and several species of Lynx or Wildcat ;
the Elk, the Mexican, Virginian, White-tailed, Black-tailed, and Mule Deer; the
Antelope, Rocky Mountain Goat and Sheep; several species of Wolves and
Foxes, the Badger, Beaver, Porcupine, Prairie Dog, Gopher, and also about seven
hundred species of American Birds, four hundred of Reptiles, and eight hundred
of Fishes, embracing Salmon, Trout, Pike, Pickerel, White Fish, Muskalonge,
Bass, Redfish, &c.

The greater part of the Mammalia have been arranged in walnut drawers,
made proof against dust and insects. The birds have been similarly treated,
hile the reptiles and fish have been classified, as, to some extent, have also been
the shells, minerals, fossils, and plants.

The Museum hall is quite large enough to contain all the collections hitherto
made, as well as such others as may be assigned to it. No single room in the
country is, perhaps, equal to it in capacity or adaptation for its purposes, as, by
the arrangements now being perfected, and denoted in the illustration, it is capa-



ble of receiving twice as large a surface of cases as the old Patent Office hall, and
three times that of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. When
completely fitted, and specimens finally placed, the whole, taken together, will
present a most imposing appearance.

Congress,, in March, 1857, made an appropriation for the construction of suita-
ble cases in the Smithsonian hall to contain the collection of the South Sea Ex-
ploring Expedition and others belonging to the Government. These will soon
be transferred and appropriately arranged. The immense collection already in
the Smithsonian Institution, although accessible to naturalists, and in constant
use by them, has, for want of these cases, not been fully displayed to the

In the Museum hall may be seen a meteorite, the largest specimen in this

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Online LibraryWilliam Jones RheesAn account of the Smithsonian Institution, its founder, building, operations, etc. prepared from the reports of Prof. Henry to the regents, and other authentic sources → online text (page 2 of 10)