How Do You Support a 5-ton Elephant?

Meet Henry.  He’s a male African bush elephant who first graced the rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History in 1959.  Constructed of metal lathe, wood, plaster, and a lot of clay Henry weighs in at over 10,000 pounds.

Henry the elephant greets visitors to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

While it might not occur to visitors to the Museum, supporting that kind of weight (to say nothing of Henry’s setting, the nearby information booth, or all of the people walking through) isn’t easy.  So how does the Museum do it?  Steel beams in the floor would seem logical and would get the job done, but the real answer is something much less mundane.  Henry is actually standing on tiles.

This is the Baird Auditorium, located directly underneath the rotunda floor.

The Baird Auditorium, whose Guastavino-built ceiling supports the weight of the the entire rotunda at the National Museum of Natural History

The ceiling, constructed in 1909, was designed and built by the R. Guastavino Co. under Rafael Guastavino Jr.  This New York-based construction firm specialized in building with clay tiles that both look magnificent and bear incredible loads.  The dome in the Baird Auditorium is extremely shallow and spans 90 feet.  Not only does it make for a beautiful setting for concerts and lectures, but the tile dome is structural, supporting the weight of the floor above it (including Henry) without a single steel support.

I’ve got more Guastavino projects on the way so stay tuned for those.  And, as always, thanks for stopping by!

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