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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However, in the "City of Magnificent Intentions"—as Charles Dickens notoriously termed 19th-century Washington—that pantheon of heroes, like many other good ideas, never became a physical reality. (At least not until 1968, when the National Portrait Gallery first opened its doors.) Instead, the Eighth Street site remained another open space in a city of muddy avenues, squalid markets, noisome swamps. But then, in the 1830s, the Jacksonian Revolution began to remake the country—and with it the capital. For the first time in several decades, an ambitious federal building program was launched.

On the site of L'Enfant's proposed pantheon, the president and Congress determined to put a new Patent Office—a choice that might at first seem like a typically Washingtonian triumph of bureaucracy over poetry. Quite the contrary, however: the Patent Office would itself be the pantheon, albeit in the practical, hardheaded spirit of its age. As a showcase of American genius, it would extol the inventive, democratic, entrepreneurial energy of the Republic—itself still a new and not-quite-proven invention. The U.S. patent law then required inventors to submit scale models of their creations, which would be put on public display. "In this country, there were so few engineers and trained technicians that people needed models to refer to," says Charles J. Robertson, author of Temple of Invention, a new history of the Patent Office.

In the words of Congress, the structure would house a "national museum of the arts"—technology included—and "a general repository of all the inventions and improvements in machinery and manufactures, of which our country can claim the honor." A bill authorizing its construction passed on July 4, 1836—the 60th anniversary of American independence.

The man whom Andrew Jackson appointed as architect embodied many of the project's highest aspirations. A South Carolinian, Robert Mills had studied architecture at the elbow of no less than Thomas Jefferson, and styled himself the first professionally trained architect born in the United States. Mills was a prolific inventor and dreamer in the Jeffersonian mold, whose schemes—both realized and unrealized—included the Washington Monument, the nation's first elevated railroad, a canal system linking the Atlantic to the Pacific, and a plan to free the slaves in his native state and resettle them in Africa.

Mills was also a zealous patriot who found in architecture his own version of Manifest Destiny. "We have entered a new era in the history of the world," he exhorted his countrymen. "It is our destiny to lead, not to be led." He set about the Patent Office commission with characteristic zeal, and soon a Grecian temple was rising amid Eighth Street's boardinghouses and vegetable stands.

Indeed, Mills described the proportions of the main portico as "exactly those of the Parthenon of Athens." This was a highly symbolic choice. Public buildings previously constructed in Washington—particularly the Capitol—largely followed Roman models, evoking the oligarchic republic of Cato and Cicero. But by quoting the Parthenon, the Patent Office Building saluted the grassroots democracy of ancient Greece—a vision more in keeping with Jackson's own political ideals.

Though the Patent Office Building may have turned its face toward antiquity, it also embraced cutting-edge technology. Charged by Congress to render the structure fireproof, Mills devised an innovative system of masonry vaulting that elegantly spanned interior spaces without the aid of wood or iron. Dozens of skylights, hundreds of windows and a spacious central courtyard allowed most rooms to be illuminated by sunlight. Cantilevered stone staircases swept from floor to floor in graceful double curves.

Unfortunately for Mills, the Patent Office project would also come to embody some of the ugliest aspects of its era. President Jackson's enemies found the building a convenient symbol of "King Andrew the First's" grandiose egotism, and they missed no opportunity to undermine it. As the structure rose in stages through the 1830s and '40s, one Congressional investigation after another questioned Mills' competence, his expenditures and especially his cherished vaulting system, which was deemed dangerously unstable. Politicians compelled him to add supporting columns and tie rods, marring the pure lines of his original plan.

Egging on the anti-Jacksonians on Capitol Hill were some of Mills' fellow architects. A number of them—including Alexander J. Davis, Ithiel Town and William P. Elliot—had taken a hand in the Patent Office Building's early plans; scholars long debated which of these men deserves the most credit for its design. So the appointment of Mills as sole architect created resentments that festered for decades. "Mills is murdering the plans of the...Patent Office," wrote Elliot in a typical letter. "He is called the Idiot by the workmen."

Whether the charges were true, the attacks eventually found their mark: in 1851, after 15 years on the job, Mills was unceremoniously dismissed. (It is still painful to read the Secretary of the Interior's neatly penned letter informing Mills dryly that "your services in the character of Superintendent no longer required.") The architect would die four years later at age 73, still fighting for reinstatement.


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