The Smithsonian Castle

Posted on November 11, 2019

Washington, D.C. is the capital of our nation. It is also a historic city that is filled with mystery and intrigue. There are many places in the city that are haunted by spirits from tragedies of years past. In fact, almost every section of Washington, DC. has haunted spaces. And since many buildings date back to colonial times, they often have poor lingering souls too.

Today we take a closer look at an iconic building in the D.C area, the Smithsonian Castle.

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History of the Smithsonian Castle

The first Smithsonian building, the Castle, was designed by architect James Renwick, jr. He was also responsible for St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and also the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C. The building committee held a nationwide design competition in 1846 to find the right architect for the job and selected Renwick’s design by a unanimous vote. A cardboard model of Renwick’s winning design is still around and is on display in the Castle. Renwick was assisted by Robert Mills, especially in the inside arrangement of the building.

Initially the Castle was intended to be built in white marble and then in yellow sandstone. The architect and the building committee finally agreed on using Seneca red sandstone from the Seneca Quarry. Located in Montgomery County, Maryland. The red stone was much less expensive than using granite or marble. It was also initially easy to work with and was found to harden to a satisfactory degree upon exposure to the elements. History does indicate that it is likely that slaves were used at Seneca and used in quarrying stone for the Castle. However, there is no evidence that shows that slaves were involved in the actual Castle construction.

The building committee went on to choose Gilbert Cameron as the general contractor, and construction began in 1847. The East Wing was completed by 1849 and it was occupied by Secretary Joseph Henry and his family. The West Wing was completed later the same year. In 1850, a structural collapse of partly completed work raised questions concerning the workmanship and it resulted in a change to fireproof construction. The Castle’s exterior was completed in 1852. At this stage of the project, Renwick’s work was completed and he withdrew from further participation. Cameron, however, continued the interior work, which he completed in 1855.

Despite the upgraded fireproof construction, a fire in 1865 resulted in major damage to the upper floor of the building. It sadly destroyed the correspondence of James Smithson, Henry’s papers, two hundred oil paintings of American Indians by John Mix Stanley, the Regent’s Room and the lecture hall, as well as the contents of the public libraries of Beaufort, SC and Alexandria, VA which had been confiscated by Union forces during the Civil War. The renovation after this disaster was undertaken by a local Washington architect named Adolf Cluss from 1865 to 1867. This time there was an additional fireproofing work done in 1883, also by Cluss. Cluss would also go on to design the neighboring Arts and Industries Building. A third and fourth floor were also added on to the East Wing, and a third floor to the West Wing. Electric lighting was installed in 1895.

Around 1900, the wooden floor of the Great Hall was replaced. It was replaced with terrazzo. In addition, a Children’s Museum was installed near the south entrance. A tunnel was built which connected it to the Arts and Industries Building. From 1968 to 1970 another renovation took place in order to install modern electrical systems, elevators and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. The Enid A. Haupt Garden was dedicated in 1987, along with the Renwick Gate facing Independence Avenue, built from Seneca red stone retrieved from the demolished Washington, DC. Jail.

How is the Smithsonian Castle haunted?

There are many incidents and historical figures that are said to haunt the Smithsonian Castle. The first and most notable haunt, is the namesake of the Castle, James Smithson. Smithson was an Englishman who was both a chemist and mineralogist.  He enjoyed traveling throughout Europe to study and write papers about his findings. But he is not the only scientist that haunts the building.

When James Smithson passed away, he left his entire fortune to the founding of the Smithsonian Institute. The irony is that Smithson had never visited the United States of America and would never see the building that would bear his name. After his death, his remains were brought to the United States in 1904 and entombed in one of the main rooms.

His ghost is the one that appears most often in the Castle. In fact, his ghost was spotted so often that in 1973 the curator had Smithson’s body disinterred and the casket examined. He skeleton of James Smithson was intact.

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Who else haunts the Castle?

In 1900 an article was published in the Washington Post. It detailed all of the ghostly sightings that were happening at the Castle. In fact, many of the ghosts were believed to be scientists looking to protect their work.

One ghost is believed to be the first curator, Spencer Fullerton Baird.The night watchman reportedly saw the ghost of Baird nightly. When he would approach, the ghost would vanish into the air.

Another spirit that haunts the Castle is that of paleontologist Fielding B. Meek who lived there with his cat. The two of them lived in a set of tiny rooms under the staircase. However, after the fire they were moved to the upstairs rooms. Soon after moving to the new rooms, Fielding passed away. His spirit still lingers in at least two sections of the castle.

And one of the buildings original residents, James Henry, has also been known to make an appearance. Security guards have noticed James Henry, wearing time appropriate clothing, wandering the halls of the Castle at night. When he is approached, however, he vanishes.

Where is it located?

The Smithsonian is located near the National Mall, behind the National Museum of African Art and the Sackler Gallery. It was completed in 1855 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965.


Visiting Washington DC is a must do experience and no trip would be complete without a visit to the Smithsonian. Today the Castle is used for administrative offices and a visitor center. However, there are dozens of other museums and buildings to visit in the nation’s capital. These places are fascinating because they tell the story of American history. Today, DC is a thriving city. It is home to many great arts and entertainment venues, quirky shops and restaurants and many universities.

And of course, Washington DC will always be the home of American politics. Everyone can agree that politics and politicians can be downright spooky in their own right! When you are in Washington, DC, for a visit, do not forget to also stop by and visit both the Lincoln Memorial and the Rotunda.

If you are really in the mood for being scared, you can also check out some of the other haunted walking trails throughout the city. Washington, DC is home to many diverse neighborhoods, which have been around for ages. These neighborhoods have their own fascinating histories, as well as their own ghost stories and hauntings.

You can also take advantage of many different walking tours of the haunted areas of Washington, DC and the White House. You will most likely start out in Lafayette Square, which is also called Tragedy Square. These walking tours are a great way for you to learn about the violent deaths over the years that have left spirits in their wake. These tours are also a great chance to learn about the many affairs, duels and scandals that have taken place in this historic city over the years.