Facts From the Underground

Posted November 13, 2008 at 2:35pm

As you act as a tour guide around the city, here are some interesting facts to impress your guests:

• Only 1 percent to 2 percent of the Smithsonian’s collections are on display.

• The current location of the National Museum of African Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery was once the site of the National Air Museum (think pre-space race). The old World War I-era hangar building was originally used to conduct aircraft experiments.

• The site of the Quadrangle complex has had a number of strange incarnations over the years: a photographic lab (circa 1874-1920), a shed for animals (circa 1888-1990), the Astrophysical Observatory (1890-1955), the airplane shed mentioned above (1917-1975), and many different parking, road and miscellaneous facilities.

• An ironic coincidence is that the Robey and Williams slave pens, Washington’s most infamous locations for holding slaves before they were put up to auction, were located one block west of the African Art Museum’s current site along B Street South (now Independence Avenue) between Sixth and Seventh streets.

• While you’re at the Sackler Gallery, take a step “upstairs” to the Freer Gallery of Art, which is home to James McNeill Whistler’s only existing interior design, the famed “Peacock Room.” While you’re in the blue-and-gold-painted dining room devoted to peacocks, think about the real peacocks that used to live at the gallery. In 1993, in celebration of the room’s reopening after renovation, James and Sylvia resided in the museum’s courtyard, but after just one year, the gallery needed to find a new home for the birds because Sylvia had laid too many eggs.

• Legislation passed by Congress in 2003 established the National Museum of African American History and Culture — the Smithsonian’s 19th museum — to be built on a five-acre site on Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th streets Northwest. Cost estimates for the new museum, which is expected to be completed by 2015, range from $300 million to $500 million with 50 percent of the cost to be covered by Congress.