Today, the Smithsonian Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin remembers the laying of the Institute’s cornerstone on May 1, 1847.
From The Smithsonian Institution, 1846-1896, The History of Its First Half Century edited by George Brown Goode, published in 1897:
On May 1, 1847, the corner-stone of the building was laid with imposing ceremonies.
The event was made the occasion of a public holiday.
A procession was formed at City Hall, under the direction of William Beverly Randolph, Marshal-in- Chief. The procession, which was more than a mile in length, was composed of the militia of the District of Columbia, the various local Lodges of Free and Accepted Masons, together with delegations of Masons from Baltimore, the District of Columbia, and Alexandria, and marched to the music of three military bands.
The column moved along F Street to the Executive Mansion, where the President and his cabinet, the heads of Departments and the Diplomatic Corps were received in line. It then proceeded by the way of Pennsylvania Avenue and Twelfth Street to the site of the building.
A platform was erected on the south side of the site, and to this the high officials, the Regents of the Institution, the Mayor and Corporation of Washington, and other guests were escorted.
The Masonic bodies then passed up to the cornerstone, which was laid by the Grand Master of the District of Columbia, Mr. Benjamin B. French, accompanied by Colonel James Page and Mr. Charles Gilman, Grand Masters of Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Mr. French held in his hand the gavel used by President Washington in laying the cornerstone of the Capitol of the United States, and wore the Masonic apron presented to Washington by the Grand Lodge of France through General Lafayette, also worn by Washington on the earlier occasion.
A prayer was offered up by Grand Chaplain McJilton, of the Grand Lodge of Maryland.
An address was delivered by Chancellor Dallas and a national salute was fired by the Columbia artillery, while the band played a national air.
Benediction was then pronounced by the Reverend French S. Evans, “and thus,” writes a witness, “were concluded the ceremonies of the day, which were witnessed by at least six or seven thousand persons.”
Although the time estimated as necessary for the completion of the building was five years, considerable progress had been made before the end of 1847.
The work was carried on under the superintendence of James Renwick, Jr., the architect, and of Robert Mills, assistant architect.
In April, 1849, the east wing of the building was ready for occupation by the Secretary and his staff, and before the end of the year the west wing was also completed and was being temporarily fitted for occupation by the library.
During the year 1850 the work continued on the interior of the center building, but as the committee had adopted a resolution, “directing the interior of the center building to be constructed in fire-proof, and that the time be extended until the accumulating interest would be sufficient to meet the additional expense,” the completion of the building proceeded very slowly.
As far as the employment of fire-proof material was concerned, the committee wisely argued that the additional cost would be repaid by the permanence of the building, and the perfect security that would be afforded to the valuable collection that would be preserved in that portion of the building.
It was hoped that the towers would be finished and roofed in during the winter, but this unfortunately proved impossible.
The construction of the interior of the main building was continued during 1852, and the materials used were fireproof.
It was during this year that the contract between the Board of Regents and the builder was declared completed by the architect.
This included the finishing of the exterior of the entire building, the interior of the exterior wings and connecting ranges, and the interior of the towers, leaving the whole interior of the main building to be finished.
This covered a space 200 feet long by 50 feet wide and about 60 feet high, to be divided into a basement and two stories.
The valuable services of Mr. Renwick were discontinued, and Captain Barton S. Alexander, of the United States Engineer Corps, was detailed to take charge of the construction.
Captain Alexander promptly prepared plans for the completion of the work.
The consideration of these and the procuring of estimates required some time, so that the new work did not begin until June 13, 1853.
In the Report for 1853 the building committee reported that the roof had been temporarily secured, the wooden frame work which had occupied the interior of the building removed, and that an excavation had been made for a cellar.
It was further reported that the foundation walls, piers, and arches of a large basement had been completed; piers built in the main story, and, in fact, about nine-tenths of the brick work finished as well, leaving as unfinished work the necessary stairways for lecture-room and gallery, the supporting of the roof in such a manner as to do away with the columns in the second story, flooring, plastering, and painting to complete the interior finish, and providing seats for the lecture-room.
According to the Report of the committee for 1855, it would appear that early in the year the edifice was completed, and the final report of the architect approved by the committee.
As various changes were made in the original plan, the following brief description of interior arrangements will not be inappropriate.
The interior of the east wing was separated into two stories, the upper of which was divided into a suite of rooms for the accommodation of the family of the Secretary; the lower story comprised principally a large single room, appropriated to the storage of publications and the reception and distribution of books connected with the system of exchange.
The upper story of the eastern connecting range was divided into a number of small apartments devoted to the operations in natural history, and the lower story was fitted up as a working laboratory.
The interior of the main edifice, 200 feet long by 50 feet wide, consists of two stories and a basement.
The upper story was divided into a lecture-room capable of holding two thousand persons; and into two additional rooms, one on either side, each 50 feet square, one of which was appropriated to a museum of apparatus, and the other at that time to a gallery of art.
Both were occasionally used as minor lecture-rooms and for the meetings of scientific, educational, or industrial associations.
The lower story of the main building consisted of one large hall for a museum or a library. It was unoccupied at first, but was used, as the means were provided for furnishing it, with proper cases for the exhibition of natural history and other collections.
The basement of this portion of the building was used as a lumber-room and as a receptacle for fuel.
The west wing was occupied as a library and was sufficiently large to accommodate all the books that were received during the ten years following its completion.
The principal towers were divided into stories, and thus furnished a large number of rooms of different sizes, which came in time into use in the varied operations of the Institution.
A large room in the main south tower was appropriated to the meetings of the Establishment and the Board of Regents; three rooms in one range, in the main front towers, were used as offices; and two rooms below, in the same towers, were used for drawing, engraving, and workshops.
There were in the whole building, of all sizes, ninety different apartments, of which eight were of a large size, and were intended for public exhibitions.
In order that the principal of the Smithsonian fund should not be encroached upon for building purposes, it was necessary, as has been shown, to proceed slowly, and this proved of further advantage, for, to quote Secretary Henry:
“The delay in finishing the building has not only been attended with advantage in husbanding the funds, but also in allowing a more complete adaptation of the interior to the purposes of the Institution.
“It is surely better, in the construction of such an edifice, to imitate the example of the mollusk, who, in fashioning his shell, adapts it to the form and dimensions of his body, rather than that of another animal who forces himself into a house intended for a different occupant.
“The first point to be settled, in commencing a building, is the uses to which it is to be applied. This, however, could not be definitely ascertained at the beginning of the Institution, and hence the next wisest step to that of not commencing to build immediately was to defer the completion of the structure until the plan of operations and the wants of the Establishment were more precisely known.”
In 1857 the building committee reported that the object for which they had been appointed might be considered accomplished, although a large portion of the interior of the edifice was still unfinished.
Thereafter the building was carried on very slowly, and for some time only a very few workmen were employed on its construction.
The expenses for furnishing the interior, including the alcoves and galleries for books in the library, as well as the cases for the specimens in the museum, were defrayed by a special appropriation from Congress.
The building committee was continued in charge of such matters, although no formal report was made between 1857 and 1866.
The Smithsonian Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin shows with an image of the building, circa 1890s.