On the unseasonably chilly morning of September 24, 1877, some copyists working in the west wing ordered a fire lit in their office grate. Sparks landed on the roof and ignited a wooden gutter screen. Before long, half the building seemed to be in flames. "The scene was one of awful grandeur," reported the Evening Star's extra edition. "The cold, classic outline of the building was warmed up with a background of seething flame, curling, hissing, darting first here and there, taking no fixed course, but devouring everything within its reach." Although some 87,000 patent models were destroyed, a valiant effort by the Patent Office staff—and by fire companies from as far away as Baltimore—saved the most important artifacts. Still, the north and west wings stood as half-gutted shells. Mills had tried to make the building fireproof, but he could only go so far.
Ironically, although Mills' successor as architect, Thomas U. Walter, had been one of the harshest critics, claiming that Mills' vaulted ceilings would collapse in the event of fire, the conflagration actually consumed much of Walter's shallower, iron-reinforced vaulting, and left the earlier ceilings intact.
The task of rebuilding fell to a German-born local architect named Adolf Cluss, who in his youth, improbably enough, had been one of the chief political associates of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. By the 1870s, however, Cluss had left Communism far behind—and there was certainly no hint of proletarian revolution in his Patent Office designs. The cool austerity of the federal period would give way to a riot of lavish Victorian details—a style that Cluss termed "modern Renaissance"—not just in the west and north wing interiors, but also in Mills' undamaged Great Hall, which Cluss also remade, raising its ceiling. Faux-marbled walls flaunted portrait medallions of Franklin, Jefferson, Robert Fulton and Eli Whitney—a quartet of American inventors—while bas-relief goddesses of Electricity and Railroads smiled down from on high. Faceted stained-glass windows cast their dazzle across equally colorful floors of encaustic tile.
As part of the recent renovations, those walls, windows and floors have been meticulously restored for the first time since their creation. The floors proved a particular challenge; to set the thousands of replacement tiles the architects had to fly in a team of artisans from Hungary.
In an adjacent atrium, nearly as magnificent, Cluss lined the walls with tier upon tier of cast-iron balconies to hold patent models. This space, choked by partitioning in recent decades, has now been liberated again, and the balconies have been reclaimed to house the collections of the new Luce Foundation Center for American Art.
Cluss finished his work in 1885—and, unlike Mills, seems to have departed in good humor. He might have been less complacent, however, had he foreseen what lay in store for his handiwork. By the turn of the 20th century, the Patent Office Building—which now also housed the Department of the Interior—was seriously overcrowded, its grand spaces chopped up into offices. After 1932, when the U.S. Civil Service Commission took it over, fluorescent bulbs replaced the skylights, linoleum was laid over Mills' marble floors, and Cluss' magnificent walls were painted institutional green. A few years later, a street-widening project lopped off the monumental staircase from the south facade—leaving Mills' Parthenon looking, in the words of a critic, "like the end of a giant sliced sausage."
The final insult came in 1953. That year, Congress introduced legislation to demolish the whole Patent Office Building and, in the words of Marc Pachter, "replace it with that great monument of the American 1950s: a parking lot."
Luckily—as with the 1877 fire—quick-thinking rescuers saved the day. The nascent historic-preservation movement took up the cause of the much-abused edifice, and President Eisenhower was persuaded to intervene. Congress transferred the building to the Smithsonian. In 1968, the Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum opened their doors in the newly remodeled Patent Office Building.
When the two museums closed for renovations in January 2000, they were expected to reopen in about three years. It turns out to have taken twice that long, but this delay—occasioned by the project's unforeseen complexity—proved a blessing. "I've come to believe that a lot of what's most spectacular and transformational has probably only occurred because we had more time to think," says SAAM's Elizabeth Broun. "I don’t think any of us fully appreciated the building before; its extraordinary character had been obscured under decades of well-intentioned additions and accretions. But then we had a moment of realization that we could liberate this building and let it resume the life that it had in the 19th century."
Prior to the renovations, both museums—installed not long after the damaging effects of the sun on artwork began to be fully understood—were deliberately kept dark, with many of the original windows closed off. Now, new glass that blocks harmful ultraviolet rays allows the daylight to pour in as Mills intended. "So 21st-century technology makes the 19th century more present," says Pachter.