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A Temple of the Useful Arts: Highlights from the History of the Patent Office Building

View of US Patent Office Building (1846.)Photo Credit: From the Art and Artist Files of the American Art/Portrait Gallery Library

There was always going to be something beautiful at the corner of 8th and F Streets in northwest Washington D.C. Pierre L’Enfant, in his earliest plans for the city, originally designated the site for a hall of American heroes. Nearly fifty years later, in 1836, President Andrew Jackson authorized the construction of the United States Patent Office Building as a tribute to American innovation. It was given the nickname “temple of the useful arts” for the numerous patent models on view in its main gallery. Over a century later, in 1968 the art collection that would become the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM); the National Portrait Gallery; and the Library that supported both moved into this grand downtown space. Now the Old Patent Office Building is home to a different kind of art—one that is still very useful, in its own way.

As part of Smithsonian Libraries 50th anniversary celebration, visitors to the AA/PG Library can view highlights from the Patent Office in its heyday, as well as memorabilia from the edifice’s early years as the home to several Smithsonian entities.


“[T]hat noblest of Washington Buildings.”

After years of materials shortages and Congressional interference, the Patent Office Building was opened to the public in 1840 (construction was ultimately completed in 1865). Its top floor was almost 300ft long with 30ft ceilings supported by columns. Architect Robert Mills called this space the largest exhibition hall in the country. By the 1850s, the hall would become a major tourist attraction known as a “museum of curiosities” with items such as the original Declaration of Independence, a mosaic from Pompeii, and a piece of Plymouth rock. There were also thousands of patent models on display. Before the opening of the Smithsonian Castle in 1858, the gallery at the Patent Office attracted over 100,000 visitors a year.

Beyond the display gallery, the Patent Office Building was home to a good deal of history during this time. In 1855 future “Angel of the Battlefield” Clara Barton worked at the Patent Office as a Clerk to the Commissioner; she became the first female federal employee to earn the same pay as her male colleagues. President Lincoln held his second inaugural ball in the same Great Hall where members of the public came to view the patent models. Also during the Civil War the Patent Office Building served as a military barracks and hospital. Poet Walt Whitman frequently visited the hospital where he read to Union soldiers and tried to boost morale. Whitman called the Patent Office “…that noblest of Washington Buildings.” (Roberts, 2006)


Retreat and Rebirth

The first floor plan from the US Patent Office Building from 1920. . Photo Credit: From the U.S. Patent Office Image Files.

By 1908, the public fascination with patent office models had waned significantly. They were taken out of display and put into storage. In 1926 the models were given to museums across the country; given to the families of their inventors; or sold at auction. The staff of the Patent Office would leave the building in 1932. They were absorbed as a department of the newly formed Department of Commerce, and moved a short distance from the White House.

The Civil Service Commission took over and transformed the former “temple of invention” into a quotidian office building with fluorescent lights and linoleum laid over the marble. This marked the beginning of a decades’ long decline. The lowest point came in 1953 when Congress introduced legislation that would have demolished the Old Patent Office Building and replaced it with a parking garage. Fortunately David Finley, chairman of the newly formed US Commission of Fine Arts, caught the ear of President Eisenhower and convinced him that the historic building was worth saving. Eisenhower ordered the General Services Administration (GSA) to preserve the building. Three years later, in 1958, it was turned over to the Smithsonian Institution. In 1965 it was listed on the register of Historic Places by the Department of the Interior.


50 Years Together

A group from neighboring Calvary Baptist Church discusses a portrait of Abraham Lincoln. (1968)Photo Credit: From the U.S. Patent Office Image Files.

In May of 1968, cheers rang through the halls of the Old Patent Office Building as President Johnson cut the ribbon at the grand opening of the National Collection of Fine Art (now SAAM). For the collection’s curators and stewards, it was a homecoming long in the making. Though founding artworks for the Collection were given to the Smithsonian in 1865 as the original National Gallery of Art, the search for a permanent location didn’t begin in earnest until 1937. For much of its life the National Collection of Fine Art was in search of a permanent home, first in the Smithsonian Castle, and in what is now the Arts & Industries Building and the National Museum of Natural History.

In October 1968, the newly founded National Portrait Gallery had its grand opening at the old Patent Office Building. NPG was and remains distinct because of its focus on figures in American life and culture. It was established in 1962 to “… acquire and display portraits of “men and women who have made significant contributions to the history, development, and culture of the people of the United States.”

To support the research of these museums, the NCFA/NPG Library was established in 1964. During the NCFA’s opening celebration, museum commissioner Edgar P. Richardson made this bold prediction for the Library’s impact: “the establishment in Washington of a national museum of American art with a great research library will inevitably bring with it the responsibility to be the center of information for the country… [The library] will be an active and encouraging force in the intellectual and artistic life of this country… a center for the increase and diffusion of knowledge…” (Fink, 2007)

Because the National Portrait Gallery is as concerned with the subjects of the portraits on the walls as they are with the people who created the works, the Library had to develop a somewhat atypical collection to support their research needs. The NCFA/NPG Library collected artist monographs and art history texts, with a focus on American art, as well as history and biography.

The American Art/Portrait Gallery continues this practice, today; setting itself apart from similar art libraries and providing valuable resources to patrons interested in the intersections of art and American history. In 1968, the Library settled in the beautifully renovated space, which is now home to the Luce Center.

Interested in our exhibit? If you’re in the neighborhood you can visit the AA/PG Library from 10am-5pm on weekdays.

Want to learn more about the Old Patent Office Building? You can always Ask A Librarian.



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