The original home of the Smithsonian Institution is an excellent first stop on The Mall to help you get your bearings and plan your exploration of the museums. Built of red sandstone, this Medieval Revival style building, better known as the Castle, was designed by James Renwick Jr., the architect of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. Although British scientist and founder James Smithson never visited America, his will stipulated that, should his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, die without an heir, Smithson's entire fortune would go to the United States, "to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." The museums on the Mall are the Smithsonian's most visible example of this ideal, but the organization also sponsors traveling exhibitions and maintains research posts in outside-the-Beltway locales, such as the Chesapeake Bay and the tropics of Panama.
A 10-minute video gives an overview
of the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo, and the exhibition The Smithsonian Institution: America's Treasure Chest features objects representing all the museums that reveal the breadth and depth of the Smithsonian's collections. The Castle also has smaller temporary exhibitions, a good café, brochures in several languages, and a museum store. Kids appreciate the historic carousel at the north entrance; at the south entrance you'll find the manicured Haupt Garden and copper-domed kiosk called the Dillon Ripley Center, which houses the Discovery Theater. The center opens at 8:30 am, 1½ hours before the other museums, so you can plan your day without wasting sightseeing time.