Tag Archives: District of Columbia

Albert Einstein Memorial, Washington D.C.

By Paul Halpern

Einstein statue, Washington DC
Einstein statue, Washington DC

The Albert Einstein Memorial, located just off the National Mall in Washington, D.C. near the corner of 21st Street northwest and Constitution Avenue, is the official monument to Einstein in the United States. Free to the public, it is situated in a shady grove of trees in front of the headquarters of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) . Einstein was elected a foreign associate of the NAS in 1922 and a full member in 1942.

The Einstein Memorial features a 12 foot bronze statue of Einstein that weighs about 4 tonnes. The sculptor, Robert Berks (1922- ), modeled it after a bust he had made from a portrait sitting with Einstein in 1953. Consequently, it portrays the founder of relativity in his final years.

Einstein is depicted sitting on a three-step granite bench reading a paper with a set of equations. These equations summarize the results of three of Einstein’s most important contributions to physics: the photoelectric effect, the general theory of relativity and the famous relationship between energy and mass.

Einstein statue detail
Einstein statue detail showing a set of Einstein's most famous equations

Engraved in the bench are three different quotations attributed to Einstein:

As long as I have any choice in the matter, I shall live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance, and equality of all citizens before the law prevail.

Joy and amazement of the beauty and grandeur of this world of which man can just form a faint notion …

The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.

At the base of the statue is a granite field speckled with over 2700 metal studs. These represent the position of the celestial objects in the sky at the time the memorial was dedicated, as ascertained by astronomers at the US Naval Observatory. The unveiling took place on April 22, 1979, during a meeting of the NAS that honoured Einstein’s centennial year.

The stately NAS building, just a few steps from the Memorial, stands as an emblem of the dedication of astrophysicist George Ellery Hale (1868-1938) to construct suitably elegant quarters for the esteemed organisation. A pioneer in the field of solar spectroscopy, inventor of the spectrohelioscope and founder of Mt. Wilson Observatory, Hale was elected to the NAS in 1902. Almost immediately, he set out to reform the organisation and transform it into an active force for the promotion of science. An 1863 act of the U.S. Congress had established the NAS as an honorific society but didn’t provide it with dedicated quarters. Hale pushed for the founding of an arm of the NAS, called the National Research Council (NRC), to enable scientists to help guide government policy. With the establishment of the NRC in 1916, Hale argued that the NAS required a proper headquarters. He personally sought out noted architect Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, led a fundraising campaign for the building, oversaw its design and even contributed the motto inscribed in the dome of its Great Hall. Hale wrote:

To science, pilot of industry, conqueror of disease, multiplier of the harvest, explorer of the universe, revealer of nature’s laws, eternal guide to truth.

National Academy of Sciences (NAS) headquarters
National Academy of Sciences (NAS) headquarters

Location: 2101 Constitution avenue northwest, Washington, DC

Parts of this description are excerpted from my article “Washington: A DC Circuit Tour.”


  1. Paul Halpern, “Washington: A DC Circuit Tour,” Physics in Perspective 12, No. 4, (2010), pp. 443-466
  2. “The Einstein Memorial,” National Academy of Sciences, http://www.nasonline.org

Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

By Thad Parsons

Old Patent Office Building, Washington, DC, circa 1846

Open daily from 11:30a.m. to 7:00p.m.  Admission Free.  The closest Metrorail Station is Gallery Place – Chinatown (it is serviced by the Red, Yellow, and Green lines).

The Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture is actually a collection of institutions housed in the Old Patent Office building.  These institutions are the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Lunder Conservation Center, and the Luce Foundation Center for American Art.

"Soldier's sleeping bunks," 1861 Hand-colored illustration from "Harper's Weekly," June 1, 1861 (Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

The Old Patent Office building was praised by Walt Whitman as “the noblest of Washington buildings” and is one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the United States.  Begun in 1836 and finished in 1868, this “Temple of Invention” was one of the first public buildings in early Washington and was designed the office and repository for the Patent Office. Built on the third major site of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s famous 1792 plan of Washington (with the first being the Capital and the second being the White House), where he envisioned a “church of the republic”, the Jacksonian Revolution built a temple for a more practical purpose.  On July 4, 1836, Congress authorized the construction of a “national museum of the arts” and “a general repository of all the inventions and improvements in machinery and manufactures, of which our country can claim the honor.”  If you were a visitor to D.C. in the 1850s, the Patent Office Building was a top attraction and inside it one would have seen a hodgepodge of inventions, marvels and curiosities.  Besides the Patent Models, it was the home to many of the collections that would later become the foundations of the Smithsonian Institute’s museums of natural science, history, and art.  Throughout its history, it has been used for a variety of functions: it was a hospital that Whitman visited to read to the injured during the Civil War, it was used for Lincoln’s second inauguration in March 1865, and it was given to the Smithsonian in 1962.  Today, the traveler interested in the history of science and technology should proceed directly to the top floor to visit the Great Hall.

The Great Hall, Third Floor, Reynolds Center

The Great Hall, as seen today after the recent renovation of the building, was created after a fire in 1877 destroyed the third floor of the building.  It was remodeled by Adolf Cluss and and his partner, Paul Schulze.  The resulting interior space, originally called the Model Hall, is a dramatic riot of color.  Covered in encaustic tile and lit by stained glass windows, the hall celebrates great American scientists.  Four of them – Benjamin Franklin, Robert Fulton, Thomas Jefferson, and Eli Whitney – are represented on large medallions in the corners of the Hall.   If one has entered the Model Hall from Robert Mills’ graceful double curved cantilevered stone staircases, turning right leads one down the Hall and into more of the Patent Office’s galleries.  Today they house the Luce Foundation Center for American Art, but provide the same service – a public study and storage center.  The Luce Foundation Center displays more than 3,000 objects and provides interactive kiosks for those interested in the items on display.  Additionally, for the weary traveler, free tea and coffee is provided in its small cafe.  If one continues through the Luce Foundation Center, one will find the Lunder Conservation Center – the first art conservation center that allows the public full view of conservation staff working to preserve artwork from the collections of both museums.

On the way out, I would suggest stopping on the Second Floor landing off of Mills’ stairs to see David Beck’s MVSEVM.  The model is designed to show the ‘inside story’ of the building and its history, and contains hundreds of model objects representing the range of materials displayed in the buildings at one time.  This intricate sculptural piece is a fascinating interpretation of building’s history into a physical form and is one of the few pieces of artwork I recommended to those interested in the history of science at these two museums.

Kogod Courtyard (Image Courtest of the Smithsonian Institute)

Finally, for those whose interest extends to modern architecture, a stroll through the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard is a must; Conde Nast named it one of the seven architectural wonders of the world.  Covered by an elegant glass canopy designed by Sir Norman Foster (note the striking similarity to the British Museum’s new roof), it is a relaxing place to rest one’s museum-weary feet.

Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

By Thad Parsons

I then bequeath the whole of my property…to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge…

Portrait of James Smithson. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives)

In 1826, James Smithson (1765-1829) wrote his last will and testament with the above statement included in case his nephew died without an heir, as he did in 1835.  While his motivations have been lost to history, this will by a man who never visited the United States resulted in the creation of an educational, research, and preservation organization whose main public face is the largest museum complex in the world.

To get a sense of the enormity of the Smithsonian Institution, look at some of the numbers:

In 1826, when the will was written, there was no way that James Smithson could imagine the organization that would bear his name.  In 1836, President Andrew Jackson announced the gift to Congress and on 1 July 1836 Congress accepted it.  They pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust that would be founded with Smithson’s fortune.  Two years later in September 1838, the legacy of over 100,000 gold sovereigns arrived at the Philadelphia mint where it was recoined into over $500,000.  It would take another eight years for Congress to decide how to use the money!

The Castle from the National Mall. (Photo by Thad Parsons)

On 10 August 1846, President James K. Polk established the Smithsonian Institution as a charitable trust administered by a Board of Regents and overseen by the Secretary of the Smithsonian.  In late 1846, Joseph Henry (1797-1878) was named the first Secretary.  During his tenure, he focused on increasing and disseminating knowledge but was reluctant to establish a National Museum.  The first collections had arrived with Richard Rush, the lawyer that had successfully sued on the United State’s behalf for Smithson’s fortune in the British Chancery Court, and included his library and mineralogical collection.  Further objects were added in 1848 when Robert Hare of the University of Pennsylvania gifted scientific instruments and other donations were regularly made to the young Institute.  In 1855, the Smithsonian Institution Building, commonly known as the Castle, was completed as the administrative home of the Smithsonian.  It served as the home for Henry and his family, the main office, and from 1858 until the 1960s as an exhibition space.  Today, it still houses some administrative offices, is the home of the Smithsonian Information Center, contains Smithson’s crypt, holds special exhibitions, and has guided tours of the Institute’s and Castle’s history.

The interior of the new United States National Museum building, now the Arts and Industries Building, decorated for President James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur's Inaugural Ball, March 4, 1881. This was the first event held in the building. Electric lights were strung along the ceiling and the statue of America in the rotunda held an electric lamp in her hand. Buntings and flags decorated the walls and a wooden floor was laid for the event. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute)

While Henry actively discouraged collecting, including transferring portions of the collections to the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Library of Congress in 1865 and ’66, his successor focused on creating a great National Museum.  Spencer Fullerton Baird was Secretary from 1878 to 1887 and had been Henry’s assistant since 1850.  Baird’s goal was a comprehensive collection of the continent’s natural resources at the United States National Museum.  While working as Henry’s assistant, Baird was involved in several important national events.  In 1867, his testimony about the natural resources of Alaska helped to convince Congress to purchase the territory.  In the preparations for the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, Baird planned all of the government’s exhibitions and won the Smithsonian international visibility.  Additionally, he greatly expanded the Smithsonian’s collections by convincing exhibitors to donate the majority of their displays and he then convinced Congress to construct a new National Museum Building, today known as the Arts and Industries Building.

Samuel P. Langley's Aerodrome Shop in the South Shed in the South Yard of the Smithsonian Institution Building on 31 January 1900. Langley was the third Secretary of the Smithsonian and attempted to build the first manned flying machine. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute)

Opened on 4 March 1881 for Garfield’s inauguration, the building came to house exhibits on history and natural history when it was opened to the public in October of that year.  It remained the main exhibition space for the Smithsonian until 1911 when the new U.S. National Museum Building, now known as the Natural History Building, opened.  With the opening of the new space and the removal of the natural history across the Mall, it was renamed the Arts and Industries Building and became home to many of the Institution’s most visited displays.  These included the First Ladies Gowns (a collection started in 1912 by Mrs. Howard Taft), military artifacts, and a variety of new technologies – such as photography, telegraphy, the telephone, the automobile, and aeronautics (especially “The Spirit of St. Louis” which went on display in 1928).  Since 2004, the building has been undergoing restoration and is likely to be reopened in 2014.

Here is a list of the Smithsonian’s Museums and their locations:

  • African American History and Culture Museum (National Mall, Washington, D.C.) Opens in 2015
  • African Art Museum (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
  • Air and Space Museum (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
  • Air and Space Museum, Udvar-Hazy Center (Chantilly, VA)
  • American History Museum (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
  • American Indian Museum (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
  • Anacostia Community Museum (1901 Fort Place SE, Washington, D.C.)
  • Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum (New York City)
  • Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, contains both the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and F Streets NW, Washington, D.C.)
  • Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
  • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
  • National Zoo (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
  • Natural History Museum (National Mall, Washington, D.C.)
  • Postal Museum (2 Massachusetts Ave. NE, Washington, D.C.)

(Links to articles on the Travel Guide will be updated as they are completed.)

For more on the history of the Smithsonian, it maintains a number of useful resources on the history of itself and its various subsidiaries.  The majority of them can be accessed from the official Smithsonian History website.