Old Patent Office
The historic Old Patent Office Building covers an entire city block. After
undergoing extensive renovations, the building reopened on July 1, 2006 and
was renamed The Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.
The building houses two Smithsonian Institution museums: the National Portrait
Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
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Designed in the Greek Revival style by architect Robert Mills, construction
started in 1836, and the massive structure took 31 years to complete. United
States patent law required inventors to submit scale models of their inventions,
which were retained by the Patent Office and required housing.
In Pierre L’Enfants plan for the capital city, the site of the Patent Office
Building, halfway between the Capitol and the Presidents House, was set aside
for a monumental structure. L'Enfant envisaged a "church of the Republic",
which he later modified to a Pantheon devoted to great Americans. Mill's
described the proportions of the Greek Revival central portico as "exactly
those of the Pantheon of Athens", a departure in Washington, where previously
ambitious public buildings had been based on Roman and Renaissance precedents.
Fireproofing the design was an essential concern: Mills spanned the interior
spaces with masonry vaulting without the use of wooden beams. Skylights and
interior light courts filled the spaces with daylight.
After years of political infighting, in which Congressional committees
questioned Mills' competence and insisted on design changes that inserted
unnecessary supporting columns and tie-rods, Mills was summarily dismissed
in 1851. Construction continued under the direction of Thomas U. Walter, one
of Mills' harshest critics and was completed in 1865. The buildings west wing
suffered a fire in 1877, destroying some 87,000 patent models; it was restored
by Adolf Cluss, 1877-1885, in the style he termed “modern Renaissance".
In the 1850s, Clara Barton worked in the building as a clerk to the Patent
Commissioner, the first woman federal employee to receive equal pay. During
the Civil War, the building was turned into military barracks, hospital, and
morgue. Wounded soldiers lay on cots in second-floor galleries, among glass
cases holding models of inventions that had been submitted with patent
applications. The American poet Walt Whitman frequented "that noblest of
Washington buildings" and read to wounded men. The building was chosen as
the venue for Lincoln's Second Inaugural Ball in 1865.
In the 20th century, the building was occupied by the Patent Office until
1932; it then housed the Civil Service Commission. A street-widening sliced
away the monumental stairs to its south portico. In 1953, legislation was
introduced to demolish the building for a parking lot; but President Dwight
D. Eisenhower signed legislation giving it to the Smithsonian in 1958. This
was an important victory for the historic preservation movement in the United States.
American Art & Portrait Museum
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