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.

1 comment:

TonyB said...

This is going to be a great read and vicariously will be with you in this journey of yours. There is a real need for some intelligence in Oakhurst, if you care to relocated back here...