On the Mall, the Agriculture Department's Botanical Emporium, 1868-1930

The Department of Agriculture is the only federal agency with offices located directly on the National Mall. Agriculture's early presence on the Mall was no accident; it reflected the central importance of agriculture in 19th century America. Before the Civil War, most Americans were farmers, and after the war the advancement of scientific techniques for creating ever more diverse and productive farmlands was one of the country's central aspirations. Late 19th century tourists to Washington regularly visited the elegant red-brick Agriculture Department building, exploring its museum, marveling at its greenhouses and gardens on the Mall, and coming away reassured of America's scientific and economic pre-eminence.

Author's collection.

The department's origins were within the Patent Office, one of the country's oldest government agencies and the one most closely associated with scientific advancement. In the 1830s, commissioner Henry Ellsworth devoted space at the Patent Office to preserving rare specimens of seeds and plants collected by American diplomatic missions abroad, and in 1839 a formal agricultural division was created. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the law establishing the Department of Agriculture as an independent agency "to acquire and diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture...and to procure, propagate, and distribute among the people new and valuable seeds and plants." The new department's first offices were a basement suite in the Patent Office building on F Street NW.  

The Army cattle depot on the Monument grounds, from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Feb. 1, 1862 (via Library of Congress).

The department was also assigned a plot of land on one end of the National Mall for use as an experimental farm. During the Civil War, the Army had driven vast herds of cattle through Washington to feed the troops fighting nearby in Virginia, and a large stockyard was set up on the Mall, near the unfinished Washington monument. This ground—some 35 acres—was turned over to the new Agriculture Department in April 1865. Sorghum, wheat, rye, and other grains and vegetables were grown on the new experimental farm.

A New Jersey farmer named Isaac Newton, who had worked in the agricultural division of the Patent Office, became the first commissioner of the Agriculture Department (the department did not gain cabinet level status until 1889). Newton lobbied to have a dedicated building for the Agriculture Department constructed on the Mall, and Congress appropriated $100,000 for that purpose in 1866. The architectural firm of Adolf Cluss and Joseph W. von Kammerhueber won the competition for the new building, which was to be located between the Smithsonian (now the Smithsonian Castle) and the Washington Monument. 

One hot July day in 1866, Newton heard a thunderstorm approaching. He rushed out to the experimental farm on the Mall to see that the samples of wheat, then being harvested, were protected from the rain. The exertion and heat were said to have brought on sunstroke from which the Commissioner never recovered. After a long illness, he died in 1867, while the new headquarters building was still under construction.

The building shortly after it was completed (author's collection).

Another early view (author's collection).

Completed in July 1868, the Agriculture Department building was a wonderful example of the eclectic architectural style of its time. Adolf Cluss, known as the Red Architect, was Washington's pre-eminent public architect of this era, designing numerous pressed-red-brick buildings, including the Center Market, the Charles Sumner School, the Smithsonian's National Museum (Arts and Industries Building), and the Franklin School in addition to the Agriculture building. The four-story structure was somewhat eccentric in design, conveying the overall look of a Renaissance palace but featuring the distinctive mansard roof of the Second Empire style and incorporating brownstone trim, string-courses, and other elaborate decorative details from Romanesque, Italianate, and other sources.

A later postcard view (author's collection).

The great double-height windows on the second floor, highlighted with gaudy tapestry-brick surrounds, brought a flood of natural light into the building's oft-visited museum space. Entomologist Townend Glover (1813-1883) had advocated for a departmental museum ever since the agency was part of the Patent Office, selling his personal collection of meticulously crafted plant models to the government in 1867 to form the core of the new museum.

This blurry image from an old stereoview shows the display cases in the Agriculture Department Museum (author's collection).

Visitors passing through the building's great oak front doors entered into an impressive example of Victorian public art. A colorful, encaustic-tiled foyer greeted them with frescoed eagles aloft on the ceiling holding a graceful arbor of vine foliage. Next one might peek into the commissioner's office, paneled in birds-eye maple and bordered by friezes of mahogany and blistered walnut, punctuated with satinwood-inlaid panels, and then proceed up the wrought-iron double staircase to the museum on the second floor. There an attendant would greet visitors and explain the layout of the large museum hall, crammed with 22 walnut display cases full of models and artifacts related to the history of agriculture. Townend Glover's beautiful plaster models of fruits and vegetables were proudly displayed here, as well as an obligatory assortment of stuffed exotic animals and antique agricultural tools. Overhead, busts of Indians stared down from bracketed pedestals around the ceiling, interspersed with the shields of all 38 states of the Union. Ascending a staircase to the third floor, visitors could glimpse the department's extensive collection of preserved botanical samples brought back to the U.S. by various exploratory missions, including Admiral Charles Wilkes' famous expedition to explore the Pacific from 1838 to 1841.

Author's collection.

Statue and "spring house" on the Agriculture grounds (author's collection).

View east from the Agriculture upper garden, with the Smithsonian Castle in the background (author's collection).

Suitably edified, tourists leaving the museum stepped out to admire the elegantly landscaped gardens and grounds that stretched across the Mall from the Agriculture building to where the Smithsonian Museum of American History now stands. The grounds were divided into upper and lower gardens, the upper garden (closest to the building) enclosed by a neoclassical balustrade topped by decorative urns and accented by ornamental pavilions ("spring houses") at the north and south corners. The upper garden was the formally designed space, laid out in geometric patterns with flowers and other low-growing plants, so as not to obstruct the views of the building and the Mall. Several "rustic" statues also added a Romantic flair to the space. A much wider variety of plants were grown in the lower garden area, which was laid out by horticulturist William Saunders as the "American Arboretum," with winding walks and plants grouped according to botanical classifications. By the 1870s, over 1,600 specifies of plants were represented.

View from the Agriculture Building looking north, across the Mall. The balustrade enclosing the upper garden is visible near the bottom of the photo. A long footpath lined with ginkgo trees runs northward (author's collection).

Visitors in front of the main Agriculture building. The conservatory is to the right (author's collection).

The conservatory (author's collection).

Immediately to the west of the main building, a massive, 320-foot-long, tee-shaped conservatory was constructed in 1870 as a greenhouse for tropical plants. The department's' experimental farm was moved to space behind the conservatory, an area that in time became crowded with a motley assortment of farm plots, a stable, a seed processing plant, laboratories, greenhouses, and even a separate museum building (in 1883), when the department's collection outgrew its original 2nd floor space.

A high-wheel bicycle is parked amid the plantings in the lower garden (author's collection).

All told, the museum, conservatory, gardens, arboretum, laboratories and experimental farm formed an incredible botanical menagerie the likes of which have never been seen again in this city. The terraced gardens were said to be a "blaze of color" when in bloom, and "nearly every plant indigenous to our country, from the luxuriant vegetations of the tropics to the dwarfed and hardy foliage of our Northern borders" could be found somewhere on the grounds, according to Mary Logan's 1901 guide to the capital. With the Agriculture Department at one end and the U.S. Botanic Garden at the other, the Mall was an extraordinary emporium of natural beauty.

There was even a unique observation tower from which to survey it all. In 1894, a treehouse made from a section of a felled Giant Sequoia tree, known as the General Noble Redwood, was set up on a plot just to the northeast of the main Agriculture building. The tree house, originally part of the Federal Government's exhibit at the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago, was named for John Willock Noble, a Civil War general and Secretary of the Interior from 1889 to 1893. Topped with a house-like roof and dormer windows, the treehouse offered fine views across the Mall to the few visitors who could fit inside at one time.

The General Noble Redwood treehouse. The Agriculture Building is to the left (author's collection).

—So what happened to all of this natural beauty? Massive changes began at the turn of the 20th century, propelled by the uncompromising vision of the McMillan Plan, which sought to impose an oppressive, unnatural homogeneity on what had been the Mall's wellspring of biodiversity. The McMillan Commission perceived the Agriculture Department's grounds, though laid out with painstaking care, to be disconnected from architect Andrew Jackson Downing's delightfully meandering pathways to the east, which, in turn, were unrelated to the Botanic Garden's grounds at the foot of Capitol Hill. Better, apparently, to have one vast empty lawn stretching from the Washington Monument to the Capitol than an eclectic assortment of restful pleasure grounds. Claims were made that Peter L'Enfant intended it this way.

As for the Agriculture Building, by the 1890s it was doomed by its relatively small size and out-of-date appearance. Victorian pressed red-brick buildings (the "red" Washington) were being replaced wherever possible with gleaming white marble structures (the "white" Washington, modeled on the 1893 Columbian Exposition's "White City" in Chicago). The new Agriculture Building, designed by the Philadelphia architectural firm of Rankin, Kellogg & Crane, was one such structure, projecting imperial splendor and power as much as classical ideals. President Theodore Roosevelt prevailed on the Secretary of Agriculture to align the new building according to the McMillan Commission's plan. Begun in 1904, it became the first major building on the Mall to reflect the new order. The building went up in two phases: the outer wings were constructed between 1904 and 1908; the center block was added in 1930.

The new Agriculture Building as originally planned. When completed in 1930, it was built without a dome in the center (author's collection).

The department's museum, which had been operating since 1868, closed in 1905, when the conservatory and many of the smaller buildings on the Agriculture site were razed to make way for new construction. The museum's collections were distributed to the Smithsonian and other interested government agencies. The original Agriculture building continued in use while its replacement was under construction. Then in 1930 it was demolished, and the elegant gardens on the Mall were cleared away. The General Noble Treehouse, another reminder of the eccentricities of the 19th century, was removed in 1932.

* * * * *

Sources for this article included Gladys L. Baker et al., Century of Service: the First 100 Years of the United States Department of Agriculture (1963); Randolph Keim, Keim's Illustrated Hand-Book of Washington and Its Environs (1876); Alan Lessoff and Christof Mauch, eds., Adolf Cluss: From Germany to America (2005); Mrs. John A. Logan, Thirty Years in Washington (1901); Richard Longstreth, ed., The Mall in Washington, 1791-1991, 2nd ed. (2002); Peter R. Penczer, The Washington National Mall (2007); Kirk Savage, Monument Wars: Washington, D.C., the National Mall, and the transformation of the Memorial Landscape (2009); Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee, Buildings of the District of Columbia (1993); and numerous newspaper articles.

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  1. Lincoln would sign the Morrill Act in the same year he made Agriculture an independent department. The original Agricultural Building looks remarkably like the initial buildings at the the original Land Grants and could easily fit on the campuses at Cornell, Illinois, or Purdue. Is there any indication that the building on the mall was an influence for the architecture of the Land Grant institutions?

  2. I love the phrase 'Red Washington vs. White Washington.'


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