While it’s currently the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Old Patent Office reflects an 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 nineteenth century, the Patent Office was an important public attraction, exhibiting the Declaration of Independence, art collections of the National Institute, and other historical artifacts as well. During the Civil War, the building served as a temporary barracks and hospital; 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 between 1964 and 1967 and reopened to the public in 1968.
Although most of the interior has been altered for use as a museum, parts of the Old Patent Office interior are still visible on the building’s third floor in the National Portrait Gallery’s Great Hall.
DC Inventory: November 8, 1964 (Joint Committee on Landmarks)
National Register: October 15, 1966
National Historic Landmark: January 12, 1965