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The story of the location that the Sant Ocean Hall encompasses goes back almost 100 years. Once a soaring, 23,000- square-foot space with 50-foot ceilings, museum and government needs divided this majestic area into smaller and smaller rooms over the years. With funding provided, the space has now been restored to its original grandeur. The ocean hall resides in a grand, historical, newly renovated space. It is one of the museum’s three central halls and it links the museum’s two main entrances – the National Mall and Constitution Avenue.

A long and distinguished history

Though it is now one of many museums along the National Mall, the National Museum of Natural History was the first public building to be constructed there. Built by the architectural firm Hornblower and Marshall in 1911, it was second only to the Capitol building in size in our nation’s capital.

NMNH building under construction
National Museum of Natural History under construction in 1909 Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

Pride in the design and requests for information about its construction prompted Richard Rathbun, the Assistant Secretary in charge of the museum, to publish a thorough description of its structure in 1913. "A Descriptive Account of the Building Recently Erected for the Departments of Natural History of the United States National Museum" provided in-depth coverage of many facets of the design, from the precise dimensions of the exterior walls to the original appearance of the installed exhibits.

Over the years, however, construction nearly obliterated the original character of the area. It had also become out of date; its air conditioning and heating systems had fallen into general disrepair.

Seizing the day… and the ocean

To address these issues, in 1987 a master plan laid out a step-by-step process to update all of these systems in phases, and it allowed the museum building to remain open. When plans for the Ocean Hall began to develop, Smithsonian staff seized the opportunity to renovate this large space, including all support systems, in preparation for installation of the exhibit.

The Smithsonian chose Quinn Evans Architects for this project, a firm with extensive experience in historic preservation. In addition to its own experience, Quinn Evans has relied on Rathbun’s “A Descriptive Account of the Building”and archival drawings from that time to guide their work.

Bringing back grandeur

Bluefin tuna
This 1930's photograph of today's Dinosaur Hall showcases the Beaux Arts style that visitors to the Ocean Hall will see in 2008 Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

The project restored the original Beaux Arts character of the building, with 54.5-foot ceilings in the central gallery and 22-foot ceilings in the side galleries. Balconies on the second floor were reopened. Architects and engineers brought back elements of the original architecture through soaring skylights, plaster columns, cornices, balconies and walls. The magnificence of this space is a wonderful backdrop for the Sant Ocean Hall.

Managing architecture and exhibit design

Before exhibit designers even walked into the space that is our ocean hall, that cavernous space had undergone a complete historical renovation. The restoration project began in 2004 and was completed in Summer of 2007 so that exhibit installation could begin. Close to 500 people were involved in the project, including architects, engineers, construction workers, fire protection, security, and acoustic experts. During every stage of the project, managers cross-checked their plans and documents with exhibit designers so they could coordinate architectural plans and building codes with the needs of the exhibit for audiovisual elements, electricity and support structures.

Exhibit space under construction
This is how the ocean hall looked in March of 2006, while visitors roamed the Rotunda just beyond the far wall (right). One of the northward-looking side galleries being restored to its original Beaux Arts architecture (left). Image courtesy: Smithsonian Institution

The unique needs of the ocean hall led to some interesting challenges. For example, the exhibit has a nearly 45-foot whale hanging in its center. How do you get a fire safety sprinkler underneath that whale?

Come visit to find out how they met this challenge!

Watch the restoration unfold.


Related Link...

Historic images and a brief history of the Natural History Building from the Smithsonian Institution Archives

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