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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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Today—better 150 years late than never—Mills has been vindicated: the just-completed renovations bring much of the building closer to his original scheme than it has been since the 19th century. His vaulted ceilings, still sturdy, shine with fresh plaster, applied using traditional methods. Cracked and missing pavers in his marble floors have been carefully replaced. Windows and skylights have been reopened. Layers of dull, federal-issue paint have been carefully steamed off, revealing original surfaces beneath.

And for the first time in living memory, partition walls have been cleared away, reopening interior spaces and allowing visitors to roam freely, as Mills intended, around all four sides of the central courtyard. Sunlight gleams along his austere corridors, beckoning you onward into both the future and the past.

Had you visited the Patent Office building in the 1850s—as nearly every Washington tourist of that day did—you would have been greeted by a hodgepodge of inventions, marvels and curiosities. In the grand exhibition hall in the south wing, display cases housed the Declaration of Independence, Andrew Jackson's military uniform and a piece of Plymouth Rock. Nearby were seashells, Fijian war clubs and ancient Peruvian skulls brought back by Lt. Charles Wilkes' expedition to the South Pacific, as well as souvenirs of Commodore Matthew Perry's then-recent visit to Japan. On the walls hung portraits of Revolutionary heroes and Indian chiefs. Many of these collections would later be transferred to the Smithsonian, forming the nucleus of the Institution's holdings in natural science, history and art.

If you had the stamina to continue, you would have found the patent models, tens of thousands of them. Here in facsimile were artificial limbs and teeth, coffins, beehives, sewing machines, telegraphs—all the quotidian proofs of American exceptionalism. In the corner of one dusty case, you might have noticed a contraption patented a few years before by an obscure Illinois congressman: an awkward-looking device for lifting a steamboat over shoals with inflatable airbags. Legend has it that later, when he became president, Abraham Lincoln enjoyed taking his young son Tad over to the Patent Office to show off his invention.

But before long, visitors to the building would encounter a very different sight. In February 1863, soon after the calamitous defeat of Union forces at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Walt Whitman wrote in his diary:

A few weeks ago the vast area of the second story of that noblest of Washington buildings was crowded close with rows of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers....The glass cases, the beds, the forms lying there, the gallery above, and the marble pavement under foot—the suffering, and the fortitude to bear it in various degrees...sometimes a poor fellow dying, with emaciated face and glassy eye, the nurse by his side, the doctor also there, but no friend, no relative—such were the sights but lately in the Patent Office.

The gentle poet often visited this makeshift hospital by night, moving among the ranks of men and boys, comforting them, declaiming verses for them, scribbling their simple requests with a pencil in his notebook: "27 wants some figs and a book. 23 & 24 want some horehound candy."

In the late winter of 1865, Whitman would return to the rooms he had described so vividly. This time, however, the building was filled not with the dead and dying, who had been moved elsewhere, but with bunting, banquet tables and confectionery. The Patent Office Building, which rarely hosted grand public occasions, had been chosen as the locale of Lincoln's second Inaugural Ball. This event, coming at a moment when the Confederacy's defeat was clearly imminent, became a chance for Washingtonians to cast away the cares of the past four years. Even Lincoln danced, and so exuberant was the celebration that when a buffet was served in a crowded third-floor corridor, much of the food ended up underfoot, with foie gras, roast pheasants and sponge cake trampled into the floor.

Down the hall in the east wing is the best-preserved of Robert Mills' grand public spaces, now known as the Lincoln Gallery. As part of SAAM, it will showcase contemporary works, including a giant flashing video installation by Nam June Paik. But its darker history has not been completely erased. During restoration, workers uncovered a faintly scratched graffito under layers of old paint on a window embrasure: "C.H.F. 1864 Aug. 8th." It is perhaps the last trace of an unknown soldier's sojourn here.

Not until after the Civil War was the immense building that Mills had envisioned finally completed. And it would not remain intact for very long.

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