Sunday, February 8, 2009

Old Patent Office Building

The historic Old Patent Office Building covers the entire area between F and G Streets NW, and 7th and 9th Streets in downtown Washington, DC. It was the third public building constructed in the new city of Washington, after the White House and the Capitol. Today it houses two art museums of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, both part of the Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.

Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture
Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown (Red, Green and Yellow lines)
Hours: 11:30a–7p daily; 202-633-1000

Designed in Greek Revival style, the massive structure took over thirty years to complete after construction began in 1836. For decades the Patent Office building also held the government’s historical, scientific and art collections, including important documents such as the Declaration of Independence (details below). Other government agencies were also housed here, among them the Department of the Interior.

The 3-story library after recent restoration; the photo below it dates from 1928.

Six weeks before his death, President Abraham Lincoln’s second Inaugural Ball was held in the third floor Great Hall in March, 1865. In the 1850s, Clara Barton worked here 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 third-floor galleries, among glass cases holding models of inventions that had been submitted with patent applications. The American poet Walt Whitman frequented the place and tended to wounded men, often reading aloud poetry and prose. He referred to the structure as “the noblest of Washington Buildings.”

Once the largest public room in America, the Great Hall was originally conceived to display miniature models required of inventors when the building housed the United States Patent Office. The space also served as the first national museum, and it was here that the Declaration of Independence was publically displayed between 1841 and 1871. The guests at Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural ball passed through this room to join the receiving line in what is now called the Lincoln Gallery. Following a disastrous fire in 1877, which severely damaged other portions of the third floor of the building, this area was redone in the American Victorian Renaissance style to which it has now been restored.

The Patent Office continued to occupy the building until 1932, when the Civil Service Commission moved in. In the early 1950s the structure was slated for demolition to make way for a parking lot, but the budding historic preservation movement saved it. In 1965 the building received National Historic Landmark designation.

In 1958, United States Congress transferred the building to the Smithsonian Institution for housing its art collections, and the new museum opened in 1968. After serving as home for American art for over three decades, the building closed for renovations from 2000-2006. A new glass roofed inner courtyard, designed by Norman Foster, was completed in November, 2007. The undulating glass ceiling is made from individually designed panes of glass, no two alike.

Recently named the Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, the Patent Office Building is once again a part of the cultural life of Washington. The building received the 2008 Preservation Award from the Philadelphia based Victorian Society in America.

Just two examples of art displayed inside, one from each museum:

Marble bust of Benjamin Franklin by an unknown artist (National Portrait Gallery). The detail is amazing and astonishingly life-like.

"The Throne of the Third Heaven
of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly"

In a rented garage, night janitor James Hampton (1909-1964) crafted this amazing 180-piece collection of tin foil clad objects that compose his life work, inspired by visions and the Book of Revelation. He worked on it nights and weekends from 1950-1964. It was not discovered until after his death, when his landlord was successful in getting the Smithsonian Institution to display it in the American Art Museum, where it remains a popular attraction (first floor, west wing).

"Fear Not" is the biblical exhortation that appears above the assemblage (not all of the items are on display). Uneducated and reclusive, Hampton expressed his fundamentalist beliefs by constructing The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly, conceived as a monument to Jesus. That he lived in Washington, D.C., influenced Hampton's aspirations, for he believed that Jesus should be memorialized in the nation's city of monuments.

Hampton ingeniously appropriated discarded materials: old wood furniture, cardboard, and glass (including light bulbs -- representing Jesus as the Light of the World) were transformed and unified by the gleam of aluminum and gold foils. Praised as America's greatest work of visionary art, Hampton's Throne embodies the creative power of faith.

A personal comment: I think this work of art is as awe-inspiring as any object in a Washington museum. It is at once wonderful, edgy, visionary, exciting and more than slightly demented. I know of nothing else like it. Worth seeking out!

A detailed article about this work of art can be found at:

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing the great pictures! I'm writing a novel set in the Patent Office and you've given me some great visuals to work with!