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Building Renovation

photoThe Patent Office Building, one of the oldest federal buildings in Washington, DC, houses the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum. In 2000, a six-year renovation of the building began, restoring the Greek Revival building (located between Seventh and Ninth Streets and between F and G Streets) to its original glory and making it a centerpiece of the revitalized downtown district. The completed structure takes full advantage of the building’s many exceptional architectural features, including its porticoes, colonnades, vaulted galleries, and curving double staircase. New features include a 346-seat underground auditorium; a conservation lab and art-storage area, both visible to the public; a café; a shared museum store; and a shared main entrance for both museums on F Street.

Design Features of the Building
  • The main entrance to the building for both museums is now on F Street, on the south side of the building. The G Street (north) entrance serves tour groups and provides immediate access to food services and the museum store as well as to the two museums' exhibitions.
  • The two museums share the Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium, a new 346-seat facility located below the courtyard.
  • All three floors are devoted to exhibition space and public amenities.
  • There is an exhibit gallery for display of documents and artworks from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art.
  • The Visible Conservation Center allows visitors to watch conservators at work, with interpretive and educational displays.
  • The Smithsonian American Art Museum's Luce Foundation Center for American Art accommodates 5,000 artworks, densely installed in secure glass cases for public viewing in the third floor in the west wing.

History of the Patent Office Building

The Patent Office Building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a National Historic Landmark. Praised by Walt Whitman as "the noblest of Washington buildings," it has porticoes modeled after the Parthenon in Athens. It is constructed of freestone and sandstone from Virginia and marble and granite from Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maryland. Built around a central courtyard, the building quadrangle measures 405 by 274 feet.

In his original plan for the U.S. Capital, Pierre L'Enfant designated the site for a national nondenominational church or pantheon of heroes. Construction of the Patent Office Building began in 1836 under the supervision of architect Robert Mills. The south central portion of the building was completed in 1840. The east and west portions were begun in 1849, and the north portion in 1857. The building was completed in 1867. The Patent Office moved into the building in 1842. From 1847 to 1917, the building also housed various bureaus of the Department of the Interior. During the Civil War, it was used as a military hospital and barracks for the Rhode Island Militia. In March 1865, it was the site of President Lincoln's second inaugural ball. A fire in 1877 badly damaged the upper floors of the north and west wings. Much of the third floor was restored in the popular ornamented Victorian style of the time.

After the Patent Office moved out in 1932, the building was occupied by the Civil Service Commission. Although marked for demolition, the building was spared in 1958 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, with encouragement from early historic preservationists. Congress then gave it to the Smithsonian for use as a permanent home for the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. After an extensive restoration (1964-1967), the building opened to the public in January 1968.

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