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Periodical Volume 3 Issue 1 Downing Urn

The Downing Urn Moves Again

By Lucas Harmon

Over the past year, the Smithsonian Institution (SI) has worked diligently to relocate over 3,500 objects of the Castle Collection from the Smithsonian Institution Building (Castle) ahead of the start of the Revitalization of the Historic Core (RoHC) project. In the last issue of Preservation Periodical (Volume 2, Issue 2), the “Protecting the Castle’s Built Artifacts” article featured some of the artifacts and described the challenges associated with either moving or protecting them in place. Of all the objects protected or relocated due to the RoHC project, the Downing Urn is unique because the object was not located inside of the Castle or even within the project limit of disturbance.

The Downing Urn is a commemorative object honoring Andrew Jackson Downing. Downing, an influential landscape designer, author, and horticulturalist was commissioned in 1850 to design improvements to the National Mall. His 1851 plan proposed a picturesque landscape for the Mall, with the area in front of the Castle designated as the Smithsonian Pleasure Grounds. Downing died unexpectedly in 1852 when the steamboat he was traveling on caught fire and sank in the Hudson River. While Downing’s plan for the Mall was never fully implemented, some features of the Smithsonian Pleasure Grounds, like the curvilinear carriage drives and trees, were installed on the Mall north of the Castle.

Scan of a historic drawing depicting the Downing Urn.
Figure 1. A.J. Downing's 1851 plan for the National Mall. Source: Library of Congress, .

Following Downing’s untimely death, the American Pomological Society raised funds to erect a memorial in his honor.  Calvert Vaux, an architect and landscape designer, and frequent collaborator with Downing, designed a decoratively carved marble urn set atop a five-part marble pedestal as a tribute to Downing. The piece was sculpted by Robert Launitz. Excerpts of poetry and a passage from Downing’s writings are inscribed on pedestal die. The Urn was installed on the Smithsonian Pleasure Grounds, near the present location of National Museum of Natural History in 1856.

Historic image of the Downing Urn with an open field in the background.
Figure 2. The Downing Urn at its original location on the National Mall, ca. 1860. Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Scan of an old newspaper article.
Figure 3. Excerpt of an article in the Evening Star detailing the installation of the Downing Urn in 1856. Source: Library of Congress.1

The Downing Urn remained on the Mall until 1966, when concerns about the condition of the marble after more than 100 years of outdoor exposure prompted the National Park Service to move the piece to storage. In 1971 the SI, in cooperation with the National Park Service, contracted Renato Lucchetti to restore the Downing Urn. After the restoration, the Urn was installed near the east entrance of the Castle and rededicated in 1972. The Downing Urn was moved again in 1989 to the northeast portion of the Enid A. Haupt Garden.

Image of three people placing the Downing Urn on its pedestal.
Figure 4. Installation of the Downing Urn near the Castle's east entrance in 1972. Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives.

While the Downing Urn is located outside of the limit of disturbance of the RoHC project, the Smithsonian still had concerns about the object’s proximity to the upcoming construction activities.  In February 2023, a team of architectural conservators, art handlers, and engineers assessed the object using visual and other non-destructive techniques. The recommendation was made to temporarily disassemble and store the Urn during the RoHC project.

Silver rendered scan of the Downing Urn exterior.
Figure 5. Processed image of the Urn from laser scan data. Image courtesy of Aeon Preservation Services.

In October 2023, architectural conservators and art handlers began the deinstallation process. Prior to beginning any work, the object was documented by laser scanning to capture the existing conditions. Minimally invasive conservation treatments including a light cleaning were carried out. Art handlers employed a chain fall and telescoping forklift to carefully lift each marble piece of the memorial and place them in specially constructed museum grade crates. The deinstallation had to be conducted with the utmost care to avoid damaging the piece; a task the team accomplished with ease. Following disassembly, the components were transported to a SI storage facility where they will be stored until the conclusion of the RoHC project.

Modern image of people surrounding the Urn with a crane lifting it from its pedestal.
Figure 6. Art handlers disassembling the Downing Urn in October. Image courtesy of Carly Bond.

The Smithsonian will reinstall the Downing Urn in the Haupt Garden at the conclusion of the RoHC project. During its hiatus, further assessments of the marble conditions and conservation treatments will be executed to ensure the object’s long-term conservation and suitability for outdoor display.  The Haupt Garden will remain open to the public during the RoHC project but there will be temporary changes to the circulation pathways around the east and west sides of the Castle to separate visitors from construction activities.  Smithsonian Gardens has placed a new object – the Warwick Urn, a cast iron urn manufactured by J.L Mott Iron Works, at the Downing Urn’s location for visitors to enjoy until the Downing Urn is reinstalled.

[1] “Monument to A.J. Downing.” Evening Star, August 9th, 1856.

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