Landmark of the Month (May): Obata's Yosemite

If you are on standing behind the National Archives on Pennsylvania Avenue, and you walk north on 8th Street for three blocks, you will quickly reach the front steps of an imposing, monumental building. Like many things in DC, the current occupant of the building doesn’t necessarily reflect the heritage of the past. This building currently houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). This month’s highlighted attraction is not the entire Museum, but one specific section, a special exhibit that is here for a short period of time. But before we can get there, we need to learn a little background on the SAAM building. It’s a fascinating building, and as always, we have to stop and enjoy a few appetizers before we get to the main course.

The SAAM, better known as the Old Patent Office Building, is an impressive building, the third oldest Federal building in DC and was designed in the Greek Revival style by Robert Mills, who was employed as DC’s Architect of Public Buildings. On July 4, 1836, President Andrew Jackson authorized the construction of a fireproof Patent Office on the site. Construction started the same year, and the massive structure took 31 years to complete. Its considerable columns and porticoes were modeled on the exact dimensions of Parthenon in Athens, Greece. After 15 years of construction, in which Congressional committees questioned Mills' competence and insisted on unnecessary design changes, Mills was summarily fired in 1851, and construction continued under the direction of Thomas U. Walter, one of Mills' harshest critics, who was serving as the Architect of the Capitol.

Parthenon (Athens, Greece); US Patent Office Building (Washington, DC)

As previously mentioned, it was originally designed as the Patent Office Building. At that time, US patent law required inventors to submit scale models of their inventions, which were retained by the Patent Office. As a result, the Patent Office required considerable space for housing the models (The building's west wing suffered a massive fire in 1877, destroying some 87,000 patent models). Numerous notable people also served in this building. In the 1850s, Clara Barton (teacher, nurse, and humanitarian; best remembered for organizing the American Red Cross) worked in the building as a clerk to the Patent Commissioner; she was the first woman federal employee to receive equal pay.

Clara Barton, c. 1860

During the Civil War (after the Battles of Manassas, Antietam and Fredricksburg) the building was turned into military barracks, hospital, and morgue. Wounded soldiers lay on cots in second-floor galleries, among glass cases holding models of inventions that had been submitted with patent applications.

The First Rhode Island Regiment, bunked in and among the patent models, c. 1861

The American poet Walt Whitman often visited the building (he referred to it as "that noblest of Washington buildings") and read to wounded men. Whitman continued working in the building when the Bureau of Indian Affairs moved in after the war. He worked as a clerk for the Bureau until 1867, when he was fired after a manuscript of one of his books was found in his desk (the book was Leaves of Grass, published in 1855, and highly controversial at the time for potentially offensive sexual themes. He was fired on “moral grounds”, not because of that crazy look in his eye and scraggly beard).

Walt Whitman, c 1860

I know I’ve spent way too much time over the last two months talking about Abraham Lincoln, but the building was also chosen as the venue for Lincoln's Second Inaugural Ball in 1865. It’s a couple of blocks from the White House and ironically, just two blocks from Ford’s Theater.

The next one hundred years saw a large number of governmental agencies occupy the building, including the Department of Interior, General Land Office, Agricultural Bureau, and the Civil Service Commission.

US Patent Office Building, c 1900

In the early 1950’s, the building was slated for destruction to make way for a new parking lot (!), but was spared from demolition by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1958 and given to the Smithsonian, which renovated the structure and opened the National Museum of American Art. In 1965 it received designation as a National Historic Landmark. The building is now known as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, and it includes both the Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery (the difference primarily being that the American Art section focuses on art about America (as a country) while the NPG is portraits of famous individual Americans).

For a fascinating multi-media presentation of the building, click here:

Now, having laid that foundation, let’s cut to the chase. We visited the SAAM to see a special exhibit that was being presented for a limited time. I had never heard of this artist before I saw a flyer for the museum, but the name of the exhibit immediately caught my eye:

Details of our visit will follow in the next few days.

Landmark of the Month (April): Ford's Theater (Part II)

As I stated last time, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater has connections to at least three other historical sites around DC.

First, it relates to the Peterson House. The Peterson House was a boarding house across the street from the Theater. Fearing that Lincoln would not survive a trip in a carriage, they carried him into a first-story bedroom, where Lincoln slipped into unconsciousness and died at 7:22 AM the next morning. The Peterson House is still open to the public, and you can enter the small bedroom at the back of the house where the 16th President passed away.

Inside the Peterson House

Second, it relates to Fort McNair, a small military post south of the Jefferson Memorial. The Lincoln Assassination was part of a plot to destabilize the entire government by killing the President, Vice-President (Andrew Johnson) and the Secretary of State (William Seward) all on the same night. Eventually, eight conspirators were captured and imprisoned during the trial at Fort McNair, known at the time as the Old Arsenal Penitentiary. On June 30, all 8 were found guilty; four were sentenced to life imprisonment, and four were sentenced to death by hanging. (one of them was Mary Surratt, the first American woman executed by the Federal government).

June 30, 1865

Third, it relates to the large mansion seen on top of the hill in Arlington National Cemetery. The large, cream colored Greek revival style mansion was the home of General Robert E. Lee before the Civil War (actually his wife, Mary Custis, had inherited the property. It’s a fascinating tale; maybe another month will get the whole story.) During the War, the government seized the property, and in a bitter act of retribution against being snubbed by Lee (Lee, a West Point graduate and 35 year veteran of the US Army by that time, was offered command of the Union Army. He declined, stating that his allegiance was with his fellow citizens of his home state instead), transformed their property into a cemetery, attempting to insure that Lee would never again reside there (it worked; he never lived there again). It was eventually transferred from the War Department to the National Park Service in 1933. The beautiful mansion can be seen from downtown DC as you head west towards Arlington Cemetery.

Custis House (now known as Arlington House)

Landmark of the Month (April): Ford's Theater

After last month’s spotlight on the Lincoln Memorial, I was planning on shifting gears and choosing something totally unrelated. However, April is a historically significant month around here (I’m beginning to realize that every month is a historically significant month in DC), and I wanted to highlight one of those moments, which incidentally, is tied to the Lincoln Memorial.

On this day, April 14, 1865, after four long years of the War of Northern Imperialism (what some refer to as “The Civil War”), Abraham Lincoln went to a production of a play, Our American Cousin, which was being held at Ford’s Theater. It was a comedy, which seemed appropriate; the Union was celebrating the surrender of the Confederate Army by General Robert E. Lee four days earlier at Appomattox Court House. (That happened on April 9th; 143 years ago from last Wednesday.)

Ford's Theater; c. 1870

Ford’s Theater is an easy 5 block walk east of the White House; it would be the last walk Lincoln ever took. Halfway through Act III, Scene 2, in the middle of loud laughter at one of the funniest lines in the play, John Wilkes Booth stepped into the President’s private box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He then leapt from the box to the stage, shouting the Latin phrase “Sic Semper Tyrannus” (“Thus always to tyrants”) and ran outside to his awaiting horse.

(On a side note, the phrase “Sic Semper Tyrannus” is accredited to Marcus Junius Brutus, who first uttered the phrase at the assassination of Julius Caesar. When Timothy McVeigh was arrested in 1995, he was wearing a t-shirt with the phrase written on it. It’s also the state motto of Virginia, adopted in 1776.)

After the assassination, the US Government seized Ford’s Theater, with Congress paying Ford $100,000 in compensation, and an order was issued forever prohibiting its use as a place of public amusement. It was used for a variety of different purposes over the next 75 years, and ownership of both buildings was transferred to the National Park Service in 1933. It’s now considered Ford's Theatre National Historic Site, and despite the order in 1865, is occasionally used as a stage and theater.

Ford's Theater; April 13, 2008; closed for renovations

Unfortunately, Ford’s Theater and the Peterson House are currently closed to the public during a major 18 month restoration period. It’s scheduled to reopen in 2009, so if you are in DC in 2009, be sure to pay it a visit.

As tragic as this event is, it also ties into three other sites around DC. I'll highlight those in a few days. . .