A Pantheon After All

There’s no more fitting venue for American initiative and American art than the old Patent Office building

Old Patent Office Building, ca. 1846
Old Patent Office Building, ca. 1846 Wikimedia Commons

When Pierre-Charles L’Enfant drew his visionary plan for a capital city of the new United States in 1791, he included a site that might hold a pantheon, a hallowed place where the nation could honor its heroes. The pantheon was never constructed, but on the spot L’Enfant had designated for it, a great Greek Revival building began to rise some 45 years later. The building was home to the U.S. Patent Office, which recognized achievement of a kind no less vital to the success of the nation than the heroism L’Enfant had contemplated. The Patent Office recorded the genius of such figures as Thomas Edison, along with the industry of those who invented nothing more than a better clothespin. It became a temple to the practical American imagination in all of its unconstrained profusion. The building accommodated imagination of another kind as well: before there was a Smithsonian, the collection to which we trace our current extensive holdings of American art was displayed within its walls.

By the late 1950s the building, long since vacated by the Patent Office, was in danger of being leveled, its storied presence to be traded for a parking garage. Instead, Congress authorized its use by the Smithsonian in 1958 to house the National Portrait Gallery and the American art museum. (The Patent Office building is now closed while undergoing a renovation, at a cost of some $216 million, that will reclaim for a new century the architectural glory of its past; during the renovation, prized items from the collections are touring the nation and the world.) The two museums could have no more appropriate home than within what Walt Whitman called the "noblest of Washington buildings," where, not incidentally, Abraham Lincoln danced at his second inaugural ball.

You might even say that the museums were destined for the site. Their separate missions echo the purpose L’Enfant had envisioned for the location; echo, too, the role of the Patent Office in tracking Americans’ boundless ingenuity. The two museums have distinct purposes and yet together they limn the American experience by acknowledging the accomplishment of individual Americans in every realm of endeavor. The SmithsonianAmericanArt Museum—with a collection that now numbers 39,000 works—recognizes the aesthetic achievement of American artists. The Portrait Gallery, by contrast, is not an art museum, though its collections include great works of art (a portrait of artist Mary Cassatt by Edgar Degas, for instance). It is, rather, a biography museum, where the history of America is told through the lives of the men and women who made it.

The immense cast of characters who crowd the halls of the Portrait Gallery, in paintings, sculpture, photographs, prints, posters and caricatures, all left their mark on the nation, for better and, sometimes, for worse. (Here are Presidents and Presidential assassins too.) Their importance is measured not by the artistic worth of the images that survive of them but by the significance of their actions. The AmericanArt Museum celebrates the work of individual artists; the Gallery reflects a more diverse calibration of accomplishment by individual Americans. One is a monument to the power of biography to move, amuse, instruct, inspire; the other, to the power of art to do no less.

Of course, the Portrait Gallery and the AmericanArt Museum are not the only Smithsonian museums to recognize the contributions of particular Americans. But they do so on a scale and in a setting that give their recognition a special force. They make of the building they occupy a great hall of individual American achievement. So Washington has a pantheon after all—different, perhaps, from the one L’Enfant had in mind, but right for a country whose history has been so much more tumultuous and encompassing than he could ever have foreseen.

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