The National Academy of Sciences Building: A Home for Science in America

“We call it the building for the National Academy of Sciences and the National Research Council, but in reality, it should be the nation’s home of science in America and will be looked upon by our fellow citizens and the world at large as the place where the creative mind will be able to do much to bring about a better existence for the future people of the world.” – NAS President Charles D. Walcott, 1922


The National Academy of Sciences had no building for sixty years after its founding. Its first meeting, in April 1863, took place in the chapel at the University of the City of New York (now New York University), and its subsequent meetings were held in various locations. In 1870, by a vote of its membership at its Annual Meeting, the Academy officially settled on Washington, D.C., as the location of its headquarters.

The Academy may have found a home city, but it still had no building. An early, unrealized opportunity for a permanent home for the Academy arose in 1900 when the Washington Academy of Sciences attempted to raise funds for a building intended to be used by similar local societies, including the National Academy of Sciences.  The original plan soon expanded into a grand project to construct a building for the scientific, cultural and educational societies of Washington.  In 1913 Congress granted land on the National Mall to be used for such a building, but the conditions attached to the grant — which called for a structure costing at least two million dollars and construction to commence within two years — could not be met, and the project was abandoned.

Just prior to World War I, the federal government markedly increased its reliance on the Academy for advice on scientific and technical matters.  The need for a permanent home became pressing in 1916 with the founding of the Academy’s operating arm, the National Research Council, by Executive Order of President Woodrow Wilson. The Academy’s building was to be realized through the efforts of NAS and NRC members, led by NAS member George Ellery Hale of the California Institute of Technology and by the generosity of the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

The cornerstone was laid in October of 1922. After nearly two years of construction, the building was completed and dedicated on Monday, 28 April 1924, just in time for the first day of the Academy’s Annual Meeting that year.

The dedication was described in the Academy’s Annual Report as “simple but impressive,” and was attended by more than 600, including 106 of the Academy’s membership of 210 at that time, as well as members of the Cabinet, Congress, the diplomatic corps, and representatives of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. After brief addresses delivered by Academy Vice President J. C. Merriam, NRC Permanent Secretary Kellogg, and Gano Dunn, head of the NAS Building committee, the principal address was delivered by President Calvin Coolidge, who referred to the building as a “Temple of Science.” The day after its dedication, the building opened to the public.

The book, The National Academy of Sciences Building: A Home for Science in America, is available for purchase online from the National Academies Press. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the building, 1924-2024, the book is available at a 25% discount. Use code 100YR at checkout.

The National Academy of Sciences Building provides an overview of the contributions made by the NAS, a description of its historic building, dedicated in 1924 in our nation’s capital, and an account of the restoration of this home for science in America.

Pictured: The Great Hall of the National Academy of Sciences, photo (c) 2012 by Maxwell MacKenzie.