Although its origins reflect the confused rivalry that characterized the American architectural profession in the early 19th century, the building nevertheless achieved a unity of design and a simple, bold monumentality unsurpassed in American civil architecture.
The building also reflects the historic importance of the Patent Office during the era when scientific invention propelled the American economy and began to mold the national character. Although more than a half million patents were issued here, the building was designed not just to house patent examiners, but also to display the models required for patent applications.
Throughout the 19th century, it was an important public attraction, exhibiting the Declaration of Independence, art collections of the National Institute, and other historical artifacts as well. The building served as a temporary barracks and hospital during the Civil War; Walt Whitman’s nursing here gave inspiration to his poetry. It was also the site of Lincoln’s second inaugural ball.
A century later, the building’s rescue contributed significantly to the development of the historic preservation movement and the assumption of federal responsibility for stewardship of historic landmarks. The General Services Administration contemplated demolition of the building for a parking garage in the late 1950s, but President Eisenhower intervened, and in 1962, Congress turned the building over to the Smithsonian for museum use. It was renovated in 1964-67 and reopened to the public in 1968.
The Patent Office was built on the site proposed by L’Enfant for a non-denomination national church, affording scientific invention a suitable place of honor in the capital. The south wing was completed about 1840, and in 1849, Mills was named architect of the east and west wings contemplated in the original plan. He was removed from his post during construction in 1852, and supervision of the work, including design of the north wing, was turned over to Thomas U. Walter. Walter completed the east wing in 1853, and continued the west wing from 1851 to 1854. His assistant Edward Clark finished the work on the west wing by 1856, and began the north wing in the same year. The building was finally completed in 1867, but a devastating fire in 1877 destroyed the iron roofs and upper halls of the west and north wings, while sparing the masonry south and east wings. Architects Cluss & Schulze rebuilt the damaged model hall interiors (and the south hall) in a “modern Renaissance” style, with richly ornamented cast iron galleries and a patterned encaustic tile floor.
DC listing: November 8, 1964
National Historic Landmark designation: January 12, 1965
National Register listing: October 15, 1966