A whimsical fortress with an eventful past, it sits these days on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., as little more than eye candy. The Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building (AIB for short), vacant for nearly 20 years due to major structural concerns, is about to reopen to the public this fall – just in time for the Smithsonian's 175th anniversary.
"I love this building," said Lonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. "Look at the beauty of it, and the architecture. I love that it's got the date on it, and it says, 'The National Museum.' I mean, I just love that."
"To me, this is the Mother of the Smithsonian," he said. "So much of what we do at the Smithsonian began here."
That's because before there was an African American History Museum, an Air and Space Museum, or a National Zoo, everything was right here.
The Arts and Industries Building was built to be the first national museum of the Smithsonian. "In essence, what this was, was a place that allowed you to understand the history and culture of the United States," Bunch told CBS News national correspondent Chip Reid.
The Smithsonian is the keeper of American history, with collections ranging from presidential hair samples and moon rocks, to some of the world's greatest flying machines.
The AIB was opened in 1881. On March 4, 1881, just four months before he was shot by an assassin, President James A. Garfield celebrated his inauguration here – the first large event held in this building.
"He would've walked in through those doors right through there, and to your right, there would've been the U.S. Marine Corps Band being conducted by John Philip Sousa," said Rachel Goslins, the building's Director. She and architect-designer David Rockwell know this building better than just about anyone; they've teamed up to imagine new uses for this old space.
"We're opening an exhibition in November called 'Futures,'" Goslins said.
"Oh, my God. That's so soon!" said Rockwell.
"I know! Saying it out loud is a little terrifying!" she laughed.
Reid asked, "So, there's a lot of work to do between now and November?"
"There is! There's a lot of work to do," said Goslins.
Ready or not, "Futures" is on its way – an exhibit dedicated entirely to the future, in a building designed to be ahead of its time.
Rockwell said, "It was built in a way that is very democratic. There is no set of carved marble steps; it's ordinary, pre-engineered materials, brick and iron. So, it was built to house big ideas."
"It is grand, but not grandiose," said Goslins. "It's this hodgepodge of styles: part Victorian castle, part Moorish villa, part cathedral, part fish market."
"You sound like you have an emotional attachment to this building," said Reid.
"It's like Sleeping Beauty; it's been lying dormant on the National Mall for almost two decades," said Goslins.
When the "Futures" exhibit ends in 2022, this beauty will go back to sleep for a little while, to undergo some much-needed interior decorating.
Standing on a balcony, Reid asked Goslins, "What do you want to see when you look down here after the reopening?"
"I want to hear the excitement, and the questions, and the conversations, the hubbub of this building full of people who are excited, and intrigued, and curious," she replied.
For more info:
- The Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, Washington, D.C.
- Rockwell Group – Architecture, Planning and Design
Story produced by Amy Wall. Editor: Karen Brenner.