Flag Hall

Client: Smithsonian Institute
Location: The Washington Mall, District of Columbia
Size: 100,000sf (project area)
Program: Atrium, New Entrances, Public Circulation, Exhibit for the Star-Spangled Banner, Administrative Offices, Retail, Auditorium
Cost: $60,000,000
Status: Completed 2009
Link to web content: New York Times, Washington Post

Key Roles: R. Anthony Fieldman, former Associate Partner and lead project designer, SOM

SOM - Architect of Record

Image credit: © Eduard Hueber unless otherwise noted











The National Museum of American History sits between the urban grid of Federal Triangle and the green landscape of the Washington Mall. A vertical difference of 25 feet separates the two contexts. On the museum’s interior, the only physical connections between these levels were effectively invisible to the public – via elevator and fire stair. Furthermore, not one of the museum’s public spaces and galleries was connected physically or visually to any other, and none of these spaces contained a single window or skylight.

To create an environment of intuitive orientation, the renovation of the museum focuses on the visual and physical connections that allow the museum’s ‘Central Spine’ – its new ‘Town Square’ – to anchor the exhibits with flooded daylight and visual connections between every major public space in the museum.

A dramatic, two-story ‘light canon’ thrusts daylight through the museum’s five levels and illuminates a momumental, 40-foot wide stairway made of glass, which in turn connects the museum’s two main levels for the first time in its 60 year history. 

The 130-meter long Central Spine’s vertical walls are 1.5 meters deep and are glass-fronted to form a continuous surface of cabinetry. Envisioned as visible storage, these climate-controlled ‘artifact walls’ give visitors the opportunity to view some of the museum’s currently hidden collection of over three million artifacts. Every piece of glass is also a door to allow for seamless access and frequent renewal of the walls’ contents.

The central object of the museum’s collection - the 1812 Star-Spangled Banner that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the National Anthem - is housed in what at the time of completion was the world’s most expensive display case, at $30M USD. This structurally isolated, climate- and atmosphere-controlled ‘flag chamber’ allows no more than 1 foot-candle of light and admits no oxygen or vibrations to disturb the disintegrating flag. Displayed at a 5-degree angle, the recumbent flag is frozen in time, floating beneath the hovering first stanza of the National Anthem.

Sectional perspective through central spine of museum's public spaces. Image credit: © SOM

Under the monumental, day-lit glass stair

View of Flag Hall from monumental glass stair

The facade of the new Flag Chamber, which houses the historic Mary Pickersgill flag from the Battle of Baltimore

Flag Chamber interior - image credit: Anthony Fieldman

Flag Chamber interior