Washington, D.C.-based architect Adolf Cluss, the AIB’s original architect-in-charge, kept up-to-date on changing technologies, and strove to incorporate them in his building designs. As a result, the National Museum was a thoroughly modern building for its time, utilizing numerous innovative technology systems and construction techniques.

Cluss was particularly concerned with cheaply and effectively heating and ventilating the building. His use of cavity walls and double pane glass were not in general use at the time of the National Museum’s construction, but are standard building techniques today. The museum’s roof support design, with its wrought iron trusses, was also a relatively new solution in the late 19th century; it was economical, elegant, and, most importantly, fireproof. And while electric lighting would not be implemented building-wide until two years after the museum’s completion, Cluss and his team used an electrical system to operate the building’s telephone, telegraph, clocks, buzzers, and burglar alarms. This led Smithsonian Institution Secretary Spencer Baird to proclaim: “Indeed it is believed that in no building in the world, with the exception, perhaps, of the Grand Opera House in Paris, is there so perfect and complete application of electricity to practical purposes.”

A Building Ahead of its Time

Cluss was proud of the technological advances he incorporated within the AIB, and of the resulting cost savings that they created. In an 1879 letter to General W.T. Sherman (1820-1891), a Smithsonian Regent and Chairman of the National Museum Building Commission, Cluss noted that the building’s need for radiators and steam pipes was reduced “…due to our precautions of inserting two panes of double thick glass with intermediate airspace in the windows, of building the exterior walls hollow, and of fire-proofing the roofs with non-conducting material.”