Why is there an aquarium in the Commerce Building?

Why is there an aquarium in the Commerce Building?

Reading David Rothkopf’s brutal takedown of the U.S. Commerce Department, where he once worked, I was immediately reminded of a question that has been nagging at me for months: Why is the National Aquarium in the basement of the Commerce Building?

Rothkopf’s answer:

There is an aquarium in the Commerce Building for the same reason there is anything else in the Commerce Building. There was room for it. (Until construction of the Pentagon, the Commerce Department was the biggest building in the DC area.) Beyond that, I do not know. What’s in it? Fish. Not many. Nothing too impressive. More impressive array of fish at Barney Greengrass’ delicatessen on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (Which is why Barney Greengrass is known as “The Sturgeon King.” More info than you needed, probably.)


Turns out there has been a long-running battle to save the historic aquarium, which was established way back in the 19th century and is the oldest in the United States. This from a 1983 New York Times story:

The National Aquarium began life at Woods Hole, Mass., in 1873, and was brought to Washington in the 1878, where it was set up in viewing ponds near the Washington Monument.

The Fisheries Commission, a part of Commerce at the time, ran the aquarium, moving it in 1932 into the new Commerce building at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. But after a 1945 reorganization, management was transfered to the Interior Department’s new Fish and Wildlife Service.

For convenience and economy, the aquarium remained in the Commerce basement. In 1982 Interior Secretary James G. Watt, looking for things to cut in the Reagan budget, cut the fish.

But the aquarium lives on. According to marketing manager Celia Laurens, the aquarium attracted 175,000 visitors in 2008, for an average of roughly 479 people each day.

That’s down from 300,000-400,000 visitors each year during the 1980s, but according to the Washington Post the 2 p.m. animal feedings are not to be missed, and the $1.6 million renovation completed last year has made for a big improvement in the presentation.