Back To The Future

One of Washington’s most exuberant monuments—the old Patent Office Building —gets the renovation it deserves.

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On a recent afternoon in early spring, the old Patent Office Building in Washington, D.C. hosted a most distinguished reunion of American luminaries. Pocahontas leaned casually against one wall, resplendent in her lace collar and broad-brimmed hat. Nearby, a debonair Thomas Jefferson arched his eyebrows at the Mohawk chief Joseph Brant, while Sojourner Truth and Cinque, the Amistad rebel, conspired in the corner of the next room. Just upstairs, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald cast languid glances toward Theodore Roosevelt, who scowled manfully in disdain.

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Amid the estimable guests at this all-star cocktail party, construction crews and museum workers bustled about, putting the finishing touches on a project that had cost $283 million and lasted more than six years. After a meticulous, top-to-bottom renovation, the old Patent Office Building—newly rechristened the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture—was nearly ready to reopen.

Pocahontas, Jefferson and the others were not present in flesh and blood, of course, but rather on painted canvases, lithographs and framed photos, many of them propped against the wall as they awaited rehanging after their long absence. The works form part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery (NPG), which, together with the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), will return to its longtime home when the Reynolds Center officially opens on July 1.

It was oddly appropriate that the halls of this grand old building seemed thickly clustered with famous American ghosts. Over its life span of nearly two centuries, its stately porticoes have witnessed more history—wars, fires, inaugural balls, political scandals—than almost any other structure in the capital, and its marble corridors have felt the footsteps of memorable characters, including more than a few whose likenesses are enshrined there today.

Indeed, the two museums' most cherished historical and cultural treasure may well be the Patent Office Building itself. Although not the most famous monument in Washington, it is among the city's most eloquent. Begun in 1836, this Temple of Invention serves—now as then—as a place where citizens of the world can come and stand face to face with the proudest achievements of America's democratic culture. "This was always a showplace, a building that the government and the people saw as a symbol of American greatness," says SAAM director Elizabeth Broun.

This greatness was embodied not just in the Patent Office Building's contents—which have ranged over the years from Benjamin Franklin's printing press to Andy Warhol's silk screens—but by the building's architecture. In a manner more like a great European cathedral than most other American monuments, the Patent Office Building is the handiwork not of a single designer but of numerous architects and artisans—working across decades and even centuries. And each generation, from the early Republic through the Victorian era to the present, has, in a sense, reinvented the building afresh. "At every stage of its development, this was intended to be a building of the future," says NPG director Marc Pachter. "It was meant to be organic, optimistic, exuberant."

To be sure, the building has seen more than its share of difficulty and danger as well. Certain chapters of its history seem to exemplify the very worst aspects of Washington politics, as well as the hazards that visionary geniuses face when they work within a democratic culture. Yet the exuberant energy that Pachter describes was still evident on a recent visit, as workers hurried to touch up plasterwork, reset stone floors and install light fixtures in the gleaming new galleries. Crews of several hundred had been working almost round-the-clock for months.

"Each layer of the building tells part of its story," says Mary Katherine Lanzillotta, a supervising architect of the Hartman-Cox firm. She has come to know the structure intimately since she began working on plans for its renovation more than a decade ago. The process has—fittingly enough—brought the grand old building back in some respects to its beginnings, and to a destiny shaped when the country was still young.

In Pierre Charles L'Enfant's famous 1792 plan of Washington, three salient points immediately attract the eye. One is the Capitol, radiating a sunburst of diagonal avenues. The second is the "President’s House" and its grassy Ellipse. And the third is a projected building that stands directly between them, like the keystone in an arch, straddling Eighth Street Northwest between F and G streets, at the heart of what is now the capital city's downtown.

"Any other society would have known just what to do with this third point: they would have built a cathedral or a temple or a mosque," Pachter says. "Originally, L'Enfant proposed a nondenominational 'church of the republic,' an idea that was later modified into a pantheon of republican heroes, which would be the spiritual anchor of a secular state."


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