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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The work has cost more than 100 times the Patent Office Building's original construction price of $2.3 million. The federal government has provided $166 million, while the rest has come from private donations. Much of the expenditure—on such things as a new heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system—will be invisible to visitors.

Perhaps the most dramatically visible elements of the whole construction project are yet to be seen. Plans are afoot to restore a version of Mills' demolished south facade staircase. And in the courtyard of the Patent Office Building, work is under way on an immense glass-and-steel canopy, designed by the renowned British architect Sir Norman Foster, which, when completed in 2007, will span the space in a single shimmering billow. It will be a gesture of vaulting ambition—both technical and aesthetic—that Robert Mills himself might well have admired. "We felt it wasn't betraying the building at all, but would bring in our own century's exuberance," Pachter says.

Adam Goodheart who last wrote about John Paul Jones for Smithsonian, is the C.V. Starr Scholar at Washington College.


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