Washington’s Bells: The Smithsonian Bell

Some of the most striking buildings in the nation’s capital contain the art, history, and collections of the American people. Of these, perhaps none stand out from the neoclassical and Federal architecture of D.C. more than the Smithsonian Institution Building, colloquially called the Castle. Architect James Renwick, Jr. designed the Castle, abutting the great lawn of the National Mall, with a picturesque, Gothic Revival tower of Seneca red sandstone. It is a dramatic focal contrast to the surrounding buildings, but one the architect did not live to see fully realized. Although the Smithsonian’s Regents approved a resolution authorizing the Secretary to purchase a clock and bell for the tower early in 1851, neither bell nor clock were installed at that time. It would take more than 100 years to finish what Renwick started.

Why wasn’t a bell included from the start? No one knows for sure. Some say the Regents approved the resolution with the expectation that the City of Washington would defray half the cost of the bell, but that funding never came through. Others blame a secretary and scientist at the institution, Joseph Henry, who is alleged to have not wished to be disturbed by the loud and constant tolling. Whatever the actual reason, a bell was never installed. Clockworks were designed by Smith of Derby Clockmakers and added during the 1968-72 renovation of the building, but still no bell was heard at 1000 Jefferson Dr. SW – that is, until an anniversary presented the perfect opportunity.

A bell finally rings at the Smithsonian

The idea of acquiring a bell was first re-proposed in 1994 and, because a bell had already been envisioned by the Smithsonian’s founders, the approval and acquisition process proceeded rapidly. The bell was cast the following year and then installed the year after that. It only took two years to fulfill the intent of the original 1851 resolution, thanks in large part to the generosity of the A.T. Cross Company, which was founded the same year as the Smithsonian (1846) and which pledged $40,000 to cover the cost of the bell casting and installation. 

The 821-lb. bell was cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry of London, England, on September 21, 1995. The foundry, now shuttered, also cast Big Ben and the first Liberty Bell, as well as several working bells in Washington, D.C., including those in the Old Post Office and Washington National Cathedral. It is tuned to D-flat, composed of solid bronze (an alloy of 77% copper and 23% tin, heated to 2,140 degrees Fahrenheit), and measures 34 inches in diameter by 28 inches high. An inscription on the bell both recognizes the bell’s donor and proclaims the Smithsonian mission: “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

Smithsonian team members David Shayt (National Museum of American History), Peter Muldoon (conservator, Castle Collection), James McCain (Materials Handler, OFEO-OFMR, South Mall, including Hirshhorn Museum, Arts and Industries Building, Smithsonian Institution Building, and Freer-Sackler Gallery), Michael Hendron (museum technician, Castle Collection) and Richard Stamm (Keeper of the Castle Collection) wheel the bell through the parking lot of the Arts and Industries Building en route to the Castle, December 15, 1995. Behind, Cynthia Field, director of the Office of Architectural History, peers out her office window. Image credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives

From January 29, 1996, the bell went on display in the Children's Room of the Castle, before being installed in its new home atop the tower on August 10, 1996 – the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Smithsonian Institution. During the installation and anniversary ceremony, flags were raised atop the tower, the National Anthem was sung, and a brief program of remarks echoed down the Mall, before a hush fell over those gathered and the bell tolled for the first time, exactly at noon. 

A crane lifts the bell to its new home, the flag tower of the Smithsonian Institution Building, August 10, 1996. Image credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives.

David Shayt, a Smithsonian curator who is credited with shepherding the bell project to completion, said, "Even though it's the National Mall, we also think of it as a village green, and the bell will serve as a community sound." 

A new exhibit in the East Corridor of the Great Hall opened shortly after the sesquicentennial, entitled Casting the Smithsonian Bell, which ran from January 28, 1997, through April 28, 2000, and featured photographs, prints, and text explaining the casting and installation of the eponymous bell.

Today, unseen from ground level, the bell gently perfects its mint-green patina as it sits exposed to the elements. It continues its role as a stationary (non-swinging) timekeeping bell, wired directly to the Castle tower clock. Electronic controls regulate the bell's ringing and automatically adjust for daylight savings time. When standing at the base of the tower, the toll registers at 30 decibels, but from its perch high atop the belfry, the bell rings at 120 decibels – the equivalent of a jet engine or a gun being fired.

Hear the bell!

The Castle is open to visitors daily and the bell can be heard from the adjacent paths and gardens.