Accessibility at the Smithsonian

Accessibility is the first step to participating in American arts and culture. Public spaces such as Smithsonian museums need to welcome all visitors, but our historic buildings can sometimes make that tricky. 

At first glance, accessibility and historic preservation seem an odd pairing. Prior to the 1968 Architectural Barriers Act, which required new buildings to be accessible, buildings that incorporated any kind of accessibility were rare—and probably existed only if the building owner was disabled. An early example outside of the United States is located in St. Petersburg, Russia, at the 1844 Mariinsky Palace: a wheelchair ramp designed for its resident, Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna (1819–1876), who had disabilities.

Button with silhouetted figureds, some with canes and others with wheelchairs. Text: "Support ADA"

It wasn't until 1990 that the most important law addressing accessibility, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), was passed by Congress. The act requires that all buildings, old and new, achieve accessibility standards. It covers government facilities as well as commercial spaces and places of public accommodation in the public sector—movie theaters, shopping centers, restaurants, and much more.

As early as 1977, the Smithsonian requested $175,000 (approximately $706,000 today) from Congress to improve accessibility. The first projects were the Sculpture Garden of the Hirshhorn Museum (gravel is not good for wheelchair users!) and the Constitution Avenue entrance to the National Museum of Natural History. The institution also initiated an Office of Accessibility, and the Accessibility Program continues to be an important part of the review of all design and construction projects and, of course, exhibitions.

It takes a really creative architect to design accessible entrances for historic buildings, especially National Historic Landmarks, which are recognized by the Department of the Interior as the nation's most important buildings and protected by law. The institution's landmarks are: the Smithsonian Castle, the Arts and Industries building, the Renwick Gallery, the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, and the Old Patent Office (now the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture). Perhaps the most successful accessible entrance is the Smithsonian Castle's north entrance. It received a subtle accessible entrance in 1987 just to the right of the porte-cochère (covered entrance) on its north side, a gently sloping ramp made of the same Seneca stone as the building. It's so successful that everyone uses it!

Photo of large building with stairs at entrance, columns, and banners for art exhibitions.

The Patent Office Building was slated to receive just one entrance ramp at its north entrance until, at the suggestion of the Commission of Fine Arts, it received two ramps on each side of the main stairs, for symmetry. Part of the Renwick's renovation was to study the feasibility of making the main entrance on Pennsylvania Avenue accessible; it just wasn't possible because of the monumental stairs. As part of the renovation, the accessible entrance at the left of the building was redesigned and visitors enter a welcoming space. The Arts and Industries Building is pretty much at grade level (ground level), and where it isn't (at the north entrance) an unobtrusive ramp can be found on its right.

Black and white sketch showing rectangular building with large columns surrounded by trees and streets. Flag pole in front.

We don't know if the original architect of the National Museum of American History, Walker Cain of McKim, Mead & White, had accessibility on his mind when he designed the building, but with a slope that meets ADA code the north entrance provides easy entry for people with disabilities. And the south entrance is easily reached as well!

Color photo of a room that has stairs leading up to it (approx. four) and a lift to the left. The room is sunlit and has white arches and green paint.

Sometimes, however, we get it wrong. Although ADA requires that one entrance be accessible, the Smithsonian tries its best to have two accessible points of entry. Visitors and staff can enter the south side of the Castle via a ramp that leads into the "Children's Room," designed in 1901 by Washington's first female interior designer, Grace Lincoln Temple, as an exhibition space for children. The room underwent a restoration in the 1980s back to the original design by Temple. Entry from the room to the Great Hall of the Castle was by stairs. It was felt that an accessible entrance from the Children's Room to the Great Hall was important, and the solution was the installation of a lift in the room. The lift extended so far out that one couldn't see the full effect of this beautiful room. Today, with technological advances, a better, more sympathetic solution can be found.

It's a lot easier to incorporate accessible design as a feature in a new building. Successful integration requires identification of potential conflicts at the concept level, access into the facility and within the facility. The National Museum of the American Indian is an example of good accessible design, with two accessible entrances and interior elements designed with differentiated features, such as flooring for visitors with vision-related disabilities.

The Smithsonian's Office of Architectural History and Historic Preservation considers every Smithsonian building historic. Designs for accessible entrances to our buildings must be creative, complementing the architect’s original design, respecting the original building material, and realizing the needs of our visitors. We've found that historic preservation and accessibility can be a good fit and gets easier every year thanks to creative minds, care, and understanding of each other's needs.

By Amy Ballard is Senior Historic Preservation Specialist at the Smithsonian.

Stay tuned this week as our "America Participates" theme continues with more discussions of participation in public spaces. Share your story of participation and follow the #AmericaParticipates conversation on FacebookTwitterInstagramTumblrPinterest, and our America Participates website.