The National Historic Landmark building that houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is the third public building constructed in early Washington, D.C., (after the White House and the U.S. Capitol) and is considered one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the United States. Several important early American architects were involved in the original design of the building, including Robert Mills (1781–1855), Ithiel Town (1784–1844), Alexander Jackson Davis (1803–1892), Thomas U. Walter (1804–1887) and William Parker Elliot (1807–1854).
On July 4, President Andrew Jackson signed legislation authorizing the construction of a fireproof patent office. The site at Eighth and F streets N.W. had been reserved on Pierre L’Enfant’s capital city plan for a nondenominational national church or a pantheon for the country’s heroes.
The south wing was completed under the direction of Robert Mills, then the architect of public buildings. The Patent Office moved into the building in 1840. The government’s historical, scientific and art collections, including the Declaration of Independence and George Washington’s Revolutionary War camp tent, were housed on the third floor, then called the National Gallery.
The east wing was constructed to house the Department of the Interior, including the Indian Office and the Agricultural Bureau, and was initially built under the supervision of Robert Mills, who was replaced in 1851 by Thomas U. Walter, architect of the capitol. This wing is the only portion of the building that remains today as originally constructed.
The west wing was constructed under the supervision of Thomas U. Walter and Edward Clark, his assistant. Its lower floors comprised the General Land Office.
The north wing was begun under the supervision of Edward Clark and was eventually completed by Thomas U. Walter. The Civil War and lack of funding interrupted its construction. The total cost of the building was $2.3 million.
The building was used as temporary barracks in the early days of the Civil War and served as a hospital and morgue after the battles of Manassas (Bull Run), Antietam and Fredricksburg. Walt Whitman tended to wounded Union soldiers here.
On March 6, President Abraham Lincoln held his second inaugural ball on the third floor of the building.
The exterior portico steps on the south wing were modified when the surrounding streets were lowered.
The upper floors of the west and north wings were ravaged by fire. Nearly 87,000 patent models were destroyed.
Adolf Cluss and his partner, Paul Schulze, reconstructed the damaged west and north wings.
The south wing of the third floor, known today as the Great Hall, was redecorated in the popular Victorian Renaissance style of the day by Cluss.
The various Department of the Interior bureaus vacated the building.
After 92 years, the Patent Office moved out of the building.
The Civil Service Commission occupied the building.
The monumental exterior steps at the south wing were removed to accommodate the widening of
F Street; a new entrance was constructed at the first floor.
The building was slated for demolition to make way for a parking lot. The nascent historic preservation movement championed its cause and successfully campaigned to save it.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation that saved the building, which then became a symbol for the historic preservation movement.
Congress transferred the building to the Smithsonian.
The architectural firm Faulkner, Kingsbury & Stenhouse oversaw the building’s transformation into museum galleries.
The building was designated a National Historic Landmark.
In January, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery opened to the public
The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum closed the building for extensive renovations.
On Oct. 12, the Smithsonian announced that the two museums and their activities are to be known collectively as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.
On July 1, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery open in their gloriously restored historic home in the heart of a revitalized downtown Washington, D.C.
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