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Arts and Industries Building

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1881, Adolph Cluss and Paul Schulze. South side of Mall between 8th and 10th streets SW
  • Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building (© Franz Jantzen)
  • Arts and Industries Building (Library of Congress)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Damie Stillman)
  • (Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Nineteenth-century exposition buildings, beginning with the 1851 Crystal Palace in London's Hyde Park, were intended to be temporary occupants of great urban parks. Traditionally they were quickly erected of inexpensive materials and depended on iron and glass to achieve high, open, airy interiors. Within this context Cluss and Schulze designed the Arts and Industries Building to contain objects representative of American arts and manufactures created for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Specifically it was based on James Windrom's Government Building, which had been erected at the Philadelphia fair. Both were inspired by the architecture of the Vienna Exposition of 1873, where the central building was a vast multicolored brick, terracotta, and iron structure designed in what was termed at the time the Renaissance style. We now view this eclectic mixture of medieval and Renaissance principles and motifs as a Victorian style that was developed in Germany and exported to this country; it found wide acceptance because of its low cost, simple method of fireproof construction, and its versatility. It was termed Rundbogenstil, or Round Arch style, referring to the common use of round-headed windows set close together in imitation of Renaissance arcades and of corbel tables used extensively in Romanesque cornices. As the Mall was Washington's urban park, construction of a building to replicate the fairlike atmosphere of the original exposition building that had housed its exhibits was seen as perfectly appropriate.

Set slightly to the south of the Smithsonian Institution building so as not to obscure the view of it from the Capitol, the Arts and Industries Building continued the broken and varied skyline of the earlier building. In plan it is a Greek cross inscribed in a square. All four facades are the same: broad, double-towered entrances are connected to square corner pavilions by arcades whose windows are so large that they give the appearance of being open, as Renaissance arcades were. The mass of the structure rises in stepped tiers to a central octagonal rotunda; the interiors are lit by numerous multilevel round-arch windows. Above the Mall entrance Caspar Buberl's sculpture group, Columbia Protecting Science and Industry (1881), executed in plaster-coated zinc, was the only one of four planned sculptures to be installed.

The Arts and Industries Building is the best remaining example in Washington of brick polychromy, where red, black, blue, and tan bricks are used in striated and geometric patterns to enrich the surface of an inexpensive building. In conjunction with molded terracotta roundels, corbeled brick cornices, and banded voussoirs in the arches over the windows, the brick is a colorful skin encasing an iron skeletal structure, a modern rendition of traditional forms and compositions. Hard-burned bricks with their smooth surfaces were used, an innovation introduced at the Vienna exposition to counteract urban grime that had accumulated on earlier porous brick buildings. Their use in conjunction with the thin metal roof and voluminous windows enhances the sense that the exterior surfaces are just a shell or tentlike cover for a vast and complex interior space. The portals are finely carved white marble—a change in color, texture, and material typical of Victorian architecture.

The present interior differs considerably from the original expansive, two-story space divided by tall, arched brick walls. All four corners have been closed to create offices and a bookstore, with the museum confined to four arms radiating from the octagonal rotunda. Large and small segments of light, both colored and clear, stream into the four halls and rotunda through clere-story windows. The thin steel rods of the king post trusses, the insubstantial roof, and the faceted light contrast with the solidity and mass of the brick walls. The cast-iron balconies were added between 1894 and 1897 by Hornblower and Marshall.

The present decorations of painted stencils, etched glass, and encaustic tile floors were designed in 1976 by Hugh Newell Jacobsen using nineteenth-century prints and photographs to replicate the ambiance of the original, but they are not historically correct restorations.

Writing Credits

Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee



  • 1881


What's Nearby


Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee, "Arts and Industries Building", [Washington, District of Columbia], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—,

Print Source

Buildings of the District of Columbia, Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, 92-94.

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