The Arts and Industries Building, the second oldest Smithsonian building, was the first building designed for the National Museum, as the Smithsonian's first museum was known. It was constructed between 1879 and 1881 to meet the need for more exhibition space for the rapidly increasing collections, which included railroad boxcar loads of items from the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The building's first use was for President James Garfield's inaugural ball on March 4, 1881.
The red brick and Ohio sandstone structure was designed in a distinctive Victorian style by Washington architect Adolph Cluss for the firm of Cluss and Schulze in cooperation with Montgomery C. Meigs. It was intended to hose a variety of exhibitions and displays of collections in an adaptable environment.
By the end of the 19th century, the open flow of the original interior plan had been altered by the addition of an extensive system of balconies. Collections were moved from the Arts and Industries Building into newly completed Smithsonian museums as they opened: the National Museum of Natural History in 1911, the National Museum of History and Technology (now American History) in 1964, and the National Air and Space Museum in 1976.
The building was restored to its Victorian appearance for the nation's Bicentennial observance in 1976. In 1999, the Smithsonian Institution began to present changing exhibitions based on Smithsonian collections and research, as well as those from other museums, galleries, universities, and archives. The building was closed to the public in January 2004 to prepare for a major long-term renovation essential to conservation of this historic landmark.