The Rotunda is the central and ceremonial focal point of the Smithsonian Institution’s AIB; it provides the main point of reference and orientation within the building. The concept of a one-story floor plan with a rotunda at its center mimics the design of the exposition buildings of the period – specifically, that of the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The AIB plan was similar to the model plan for a museum published by J.N.L. Durand in the book Precis des lecons d’architecture donnees a l’Ecole Polytechnique (1802-1805).
The Rotunda’s Place in the AIB Hierarchy
Four halls project to the north, south, east, and west from the AIB’s Rotunda. It is octagonal at ground level, gradually transitioning to 16-sided above the halls, and is covered with a dome-like structural roof system. The hierarchy of the AIB is reflected in the height of its various components; the Rotunda, designed to be its dominant architectural element, is the tallest space in the building, ranging from 77 feet high at the perimeter to 108 feet high at its center.
Centered in the Rotunda is a fountain, originally constructed in 1881 and replaced in the 1970s. Two plaster statues have decorated the Rotunda interior. The original statue, “America,” designed by Caspar Buberl, was placed in the Rotunda in advance of the Garfield Inaugural Ball in early 1881, and demolished several months later when work on the fountain began. In December 1890, “Freedom,” the original full-sized plaster model of the bronze statue created by Thomas Crawford for the dome of the Capitol, was installed in the Rotunda’s center. It remained there until 1967, when it was removed; it is currently on exhibit in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, also in Washington.