Two Early Photographs Showing Aftermath of 1865 Smithsonian Fire

I decided to end the week with something on the lighter side. Here are two carte de visite photographs that date to  shortly after March 7, 1865, and which show the aftermath of the fire that ravaged the Smithsonian Castle. The photographer for both photos was George D. Wakely.

According to the Smithsonian Institution Archives, on the afternoon of January 24, 1865, “a large fire erupted in the Smithsonian Institution Building … destroying multiple sections of the building and their collections.” The Smithsonian’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry “had chosen to keep costs down during the Castle’s initial construction from 1847–1855 by only fire-proofing some areas.” But to reduce the risk of fire he enforced some precautions to prevent them: “he prohibited smoking and the carrying of exposed flames, maintained a night watch, and stationed buckets of water around the building. Despite these safeguards, a fire started between the ceiling and roof of the main hall when workmen in the second floor Picture Gallery accidentally inserted a stove pipe into the brick lining of the building instead of into a flue.” You can read Mary Henry’s (daughter of Joseph) account of the fire here.

Smithsonian 1865(The Smithsonian Castle after the January 1865 fire. View from the northwest. Notice missing roof. Photograph from authors collection.)

Below is a view of the castle after the fire from the southwest. It actually provides a better idea  of the extent of the damage.

Smithsonian 1865(Photograph from authors collection.)

An online exhibition of Stereoviews depicting the Smithsonian Castle, one of which is this view, again provides a great description of what is shown in this image. The view again shows that the “main building is roofless and portions of the temporary roof inserted above the window ledges are visible protruding from the window openings. The octagonal tower is windowless, as are the two north towers, the south tower, and the connecting section between the south tower and the main building. The upper third of the south tower is missing (it was pulled down immediately after the fire) and is covered by a temporary wooden roof. A pile of bricks and a temporary work shed are seen at the base of the south tower.”

Reconstruction of the a new, permanent roof began in the spring of 1867, this time built from fire-proof materials.


Explore posts in the same categories: History

Tags: ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

One Comment on “Two Early Photographs Showing Aftermath of 1865 Smithsonian Fire”

  1. digitaleffie Says:

    Thank you for sharing the images. In case readers want to know more about the history of the Castle, we have more detail here –

    Effie Kapsalis, Smithsonian Institution Archives

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: