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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Weathering the Storm

“What winds accomplished in an hour hundreds of workmen will spend months in trying to repair. Besides the great heaps of debris where big buildings were toppled over like card houses, the streets from one end of the city to the other are littered with tin roofs blown from houses and twisted and rolled into all sorts of queer shapes.” Washington Post, October 1, 1896.  
Washington, D.C. - Looking Toward West Side of U.S. Capitol
circa 1900

Tis the season for such weather. Though the city of Washington has already had its brush with some of Mother Nature’s fiercest storms this year, this is not a new trend. 115 years ago today, the city faced a terrible hurricane that left a path of damage that took  lives, destroyed buildings and overturned ships on the Potomac throughout Washington, Maryland and Virginia. The storms furious seventy-five mile per hour winds and rains caused property loss estimated to equal upwards of a quarter million dollars in D.C. alone. Telegraph companies lost communication with northern and southern cities alike and local telephone services were stopped for days. The city’s fire alarm and telephone service were knocked out and the Metropolitan Railroad House collapsed.  The Washington Post noted, “Indeed, a strong characteristic of the storm was the uniformity of damage done, no part of the city or surrounding country escaping.”

Buildings Report 1896-97
Unfortunately this included the Smithsonian. In 1896, the Smithsonian consisted of the Smithsonian Institution Building or the “Castle” and the U. S. National Museum (USNM), now known as the Arts and Industries Building. On the night of the vicious storm both buildings sustained damages, with the Castle being less fortunate than the USNM. According to curator of mechanical technology J.Elfreth Watkins’ Buildings Report 1896-97, the Castle received much needed repairs and improvements to the “roof of the exhibition halls and the towers damaged in the severe storm of September 29, 1896.” The USNM sustained only minor leaks in the roof of the building.

Smithsonian Building, Arts & Industries, and Capitol
circa 1892
The Smithsonian buildings weathered the storm of 1896 and have continued to witness the events that impact the nation’s capitol. Then and now it is a challenge to not only secure the buildings, but the nation’s treasures that are stored within their walls. It is important to remember these past events, so that staff can learn from prior storms what worked and what did not, in trying to protect the collections from the elements.

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