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‘Symbolic Heart’: Smithsonian’s Castle to Include Original 1855 Painting After Restoration

‘Symbolic Heart’: Smithsonian’s Castle to Include Original 1855 Painting After Restoration

cConsidered the “anchor” of the National Mall, the Smithsonian Institution building is set to undergo a five-year restoration project. The restored building will feature the original paint colors from when the structure was built in 1855.

The Castle, as it is more affectionately called, has not been renovated since the fifties.


The building is “really overdue” for restoration work, said historic preservation specialist Carly Bond in an interview with the Washington Examiner.

He said a difficult part of the project is balancing the needs of historic buildings with modern use and the overall amount of maintenance required to care for historic structures. The restoration processes include excavation and renovation work on the exterior and interior, Bond said.

“When people come back to The Castle, that interior is going to get tough because we’re going to restore the historic finish colors,” Bond said of the interior, which currently has 1980s paint.

“We did microscopic analysis to find out what they are.”

In 1855, The Castle was the Smithsonian’s only structure, and all laboratories, libraries, housing, and secretaries operated from it.

Restoration in the late 1960s transformed the exterior to resemble the Victorian era from which it originated. In 1977, the building received the status of historical reference.

Garden of the Smithsonian Institutional Building

Archives of the Smithsonian Institution

The colors will be from the original paint used when The Castle opened between 1855 and 1900, he said.

“It’s going to be different, but it’s going to be amazing and beautiful,” Bond said.

While the restoration process involves a variety of people, the preservation team, made up of just Bond and one other, draws up the design and lists specific requirements that architects and designers must meet when renovations are completed. Certain areas, such as interior designs and plaster finishes, must remain intact.

Something, or someone, must also remain intact: the body of the benefactor of the James Smithson Institution. Years after his death in Genoa, Italy in 1829, Smithson’s remains were brought to the Smithsonian in 1904. His body is buried under the castle, with a granite sculpture placed on the main floor.

Smithsonian Institution

He is the only body buried on the National Mall, Bond said.

Bond said the goal of the project, which has been designed since 2021, is to return 40 percent of the castle to public use, allowing more “beautiful historic interiors” to be used for public programs, conferences and Events.

The cost of the renovations will be determined after a construction team is hired, said Smithsonian chief spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas. The project will be fully federally funded.

Getting renovation projects off the ground can be challenging in the district, Bond added, because of the multitude of projects seeking approval and the years it takes to design a project.

“It’s really a wonderful thing to be a part of, to see something that you work on for a couple of years, through the design, the construction and the restoration,” Bond said.

Outside the Smithsonian Institutional Building
Outside the Smithsonian Institutional Building “The Castle”

Ken Rahaim/Smithsonian Photo Services, Ken

During the last decades, the castle has served as an administrative and educational building. Its main interior public spaces on the ground floor of the castle have served as a visitor center, while administrative offices and support spaces occupy the rest of the floors.

Close to a million people visit The Castle each year, Bond said. They consider the castle to be a starting point.

“It’s very popular with visitors, people who don’t know where to start their trips to the Smithsonian and come down and learn a little bit about what each section has to offer, and then plan their day,” Bond said.


Sometimes, Bond said, people visit thinking the castle itself is the Smithsonian and are surprised to learn there’s more to see and do on the National Mall.

“It’s hard to imagine that we could, at one point, fit into a building,” Bond said. “That’s why it’s really our symbolic heart. … It’s shaped the National Mall.”

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