When the first Department of Agriculture building opened on the Mall in 1868, its programs of research and experimentation complemented those of the Smithsonian. The Mall in the late 1800s was a place for scientific discovery as much as education, and the Department of Agriculture grew experimental crops on the Mall and in greenhouses, conducted research in the labs indoors, and shared their findings with the nation. Although the newer Agriculture building only houses administrative offices, the grounds are still used for education and discovery.
Why is the Department of Agriculture on the National Mall?
The Department of Agriculture was created by Congress in 1862, during the Civil War. As soon as the war was over, the Department began to grow experimental crops as well as demonstration gardens on the area allocated to it by Congress on the Mall. The gardens, which stretched from the front of the building all the way to present-day Constitution Avenue, are visible in the foreground of this photograph. The Agriculture Building, completed in 1868, was designed by the same architect as the Smithsonian Castle.
Both the Department of Agriculture and the Smithsonian were sites for scientific experimentation and development in the late 1800s. In addition to the outdoor crops and gardens, the Department maintained greenhouses, visible on the right side of this photograph, where they grew herbs and botanical specimens from around the world.
Like the its neighbor, the Department of Agriculture building contained a museum in addition to offices and laboratories. This illustration from a popular weekly magazine shows visitors in the building’s library, which was also open to visitors. The museum collections included over two hundred specimens of ears of corn, illustrations of harmful insects, and the finest collection of silk cocoons in the country. The laboratories, staff offices, and research programs rapidly outgrew its space, and the Secretary of Agriculture repeatedly begged Congress for new facilities.
In 1901, Congress approved a new building for the Department, not only in response to its growth but as part of the McMillan Plan’s redesign of the Mall. Planners wanted to place museums and offices devoted to scientific purposes on the borders of the Mall. The research and educational mission of the Department of Agriculture matched this goal. Designs for a new Agriculture building represented the classical architectural style planners wanted to build throughout the National Mall. This photograph shows the old building on the left and the new, completed in 1908, on the right.
Between 1908 and 1930, the Department of Agriculture expanded south from the National Mall, all the while continuing to hold public programs in agricultural technology, homemaking, meat-packing, and even milking cows in temporary buildings on or near the Mall. The original red brick building was demolished in 1930, but the second building remains on the Mall, in line with the Freer Gallery. Although this building now only houses offices, the Department continues to engage and educate visitors to the Mall through the Peoples’ Garden and educational programs at their weekly Farmer’s Market.