What drew you to this story?
I love Washington's sense of history, but it can be hard to find sometimes. Strangely, it's not a city where the history is as present as in Boston or Charleston or Savannah. You have to dig for it a little bit. And this story gave me the opportunity to dig into this amazing history.
How did you go about digging up the history of the Patent Office Building?
Because it was a federal building, meticulous records were kept from the very beginning, and the Smithsonian has gathered together all of the records from the Library of Congress, the National Archives. The neat thing about the records is, because every expense was paid for by tax dollars, they had to document every penny. So they kept track of how much a spittoon cost and where the carpets had been ordered from—all that information was there.
Why do you think tourists don't pay as much attention to the Patent Office Building as they used to?
Once upon a time this was the museum, and now there are lots of museums in Washington. But this is still a very special museum and people will be coming back to it now with the renovations and also with the revitalization of that downtown area. I think it's on the verge of becoming a draw just like back in the old days.
Did you ever visit the building before the renovations?
When I lived in Washington after college I used to go to the Smithsonian museums just about every weekend, including to the Portrait Gallery. And that of course was before the renovations. I remember how dark and cavernous it felt. You could tell that it was a grand old building, although I didn't know much of its history. I did know that Walt Whitman had nursed wounded Civil War soldiers there, and that was a thrill to me because I'm a great admirer of Whitman, and I remember that sort of awe that I felt walking around the building. But looking at it now it's like night into day—I mean literally, because they've let so much light into the building and just brightened everything and opened everything up. I felt the change immediately when I walked in, and I think the visitors will too.
Are there other buildings that interest you in the same way?
I write about American history, but I also have a background in classical archaeology, and so it was interesting to me to experience a building that was very much a reinterpretation of the Greco-Roman ideals. I found that fascinating. I've always loved Greek temples, and this building is the American version of a Greek temple. They modeled the building's facades after the Parthenon, so they were very consciously echoing that. And I think once again, today, as it was in 1836, the Patent Office can be an object of civic pride as Parthenon was and is in Athens.
How did you approach writing the article?
I really tried to write a biography of the building, as if the building had had a life of its own, and had a personality and adventures—ups and downs in much the way that a person does. But because of its importance and because it's so old it's had a much richer life than many people. I looked for moments from that history, in particularly details—I love a sense of physical details. For example, the roast pheasants being trodden underfoot at Lincoln's inaugural ball, or the architect of the building, Mills, being called an idiot by the workmen. Those little details just brought the history alive for me.