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Pick just about any major plan of Washington, D.C., and you’ll find countless disparities between the intended design, and what currently stands in its place. Form Jefferson’s first sketch of the national capital to L’Enfant’s grandstanding 1790 Plan, and from the 1901 McMillan Plan to whatever Mayor Bowser has in store for the District, there’s a big difference between what gets planned, and what gets built. This is no surprise; given how the the District is mandated and ultimately overseen by Congress, it’s a wonder anything here gets built at all.

Looking through the stratified layers of river silt, marsh mud, and undrainable swamp that make up the District of Columbia we now know and love, it’s largely a story of disappointment after disappointment. While the story of a French officer designing the letters-and-numbers grid is a well-known tale, it’s rarely remembered that L’Enfant was fired, and died in poverty. Washington himself asked L’Enfant to make necessary changes to the plan, and when he wouldn’t back down, he was summarily sacked. The planning of the city was left in the hands of Benjamin Banneker, Andrew Ellicott, and Thomas Jefferson, names not nearly recollected as often as Pierre L’Enfant in the telling of D.C.’s genesis.

However, the planning of the District’s streets and the layout its avenues were a mere headache compared to the migraine of getting government buildings off the ground. How lavish should a president’s house be? How tall should the dome of the Capitol reach? Exactly how can one balance baroque palatial appointments and still call it a temple dedicated to democracy? These are questions that plagued architects like James Hoban, William Thornton, and Stephen Hallet. As one could imagine, any project managed by three terribly opinionated architects is bound to have some roadblocks. They not only had to answer to each other, but also to the President, and to Congress.

By 1803, all of the revisions and final designs for the Capitol eventually fell into Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s lap, who arguably did more than his three predecessors to get the Capitol built. For nearly a decade, he oversaw the construction of the Capitol, wrestling with Jefferson over the plans, only to have his work halted at the outbreak of the War of 1812, then ultimately destroyed during the Burning of Washington in 1814. Though he worked briefly on the Capitol’s re-construction, he left Washington City in 1818 unpaid, bankrupt, and thoroughly disillusioned.

In 1836, President Andrew Jackson authorized federal funding for the construction of a fireproof building for the Patent Office, to be built where L’Enfant originally envisioned a nondenominational national church, or a pantheon dedicated to the deified spirits of the original Founding Fathers (yes, really). The winning bid was from Robert Mills, a pupil and friend of Hoban and Latrobe. Mills took L’Enfant’s pantheon concept, and ran with it. The plans he handed Jackson and Congress in 1836 were for a massive, sprawling, yet somehow fitting Greek-revival temple-style building.

Old Patent Office Building, ca. 1846

This marks a turning point in the dominant architectural style of D.C.’s federal buildings. L’Enfant and his contemporaries favored the Romanesque and Baroque finishes, with flourishing balustrades and intricate mosaics. Mills envisioned a real-life Pantheon, made to-scale, in white, pristine, hand-carved solid stone. It was, and still is unbelievably expensive to build in this style, and it still goes down as one of DC’s defining characteristics.

Function was still the primary goal of the new federal building at 9th and F streets, and for peak functionality, Jackson demanded something fireproof. One of the best ways to fireproof a building, Mills discovered, was to incorporate as much natural light as possible. The yawning windows on the building’s porticos, the countless skylights in the ceilings, and windows to a central courtyard allow sunlight to come screaming in from every direction throughout the day, cutting the need for gas lamps. Mills also incorporated masonry vaulting into the construction, rather than the more common, highly flammable wooden beams.


The Patent Office moved in to the building in 1840, setting up in the Southern wing. A National Gallery is opened on the third floor that same year, displaying art, scientific exhibits, the Declaration of Independence, and George Washington’s war tent. The gallery becomes a tourist destination, bringing in 10,000 visitors every year by 1857.

The 1850’s brought political tension to the Patent Office, and to Washington City. Congressional leadership in the Southern states began to vocalize their displeasure at further construction of such a lavish, marble-covered, exorbitantly expensive federal building. Mills was ousted in 1851 due to political in-fighting, and Congressional bickering. The fight over the Patent Office reflected the tensions between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government in the days leading up to the Civil War.

Mills wasn’t the only one who was ousted from the Patent Office; Clara Barton famously came to work at the Patent Office in 1854, becoming the first woman to earn a salary from the federal government equal to that of her male counterparts. A year later, under the Pierce administration, her pay was cut at the request of Secretary of the Interior Robert McClelland, who vehemently disapproved of women working in the federal government. She was later sacked, and her position eliminated by James Buchanan. She returned under Lincoln in 1861, but working only as a copyist, and receiving another pay cut.

The American Civil War halted the construction of the Patent Office. After disastrous, bloody battles at Antietam, Bull Run, and Fredericksburg, the Union Army turned the unfinished hallways into a temporary, makeshift, and largely slipshod military hospital and morgue. This scene became Walt Whitman’s introduction to the District, and provided fertile ground for his Leaves of Grass. He worked by day as a copyist, and searched the Patent Office hospital for his brother by night. When remembering his former place of work, he wrote:


February 23.—I MUST not let the great hospital at the Patent-office pass away without some mention. A few weeks ago the vast area of the second story of that noblest of Washington buildings was crowded close with rows of sick, badly wounded and dying soldiers. They were placed in three very large apartments. I went there many times. It was a strange, solemn, and, with all its features of suffering and death, a sort of fascinating sight. I go sometimes at night to soothe and relieve particular cases. Two of the immense apartments are fill’d with high and ponderous glass cases, crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine or invention, it ever enter’d into the mind of man to conceive; and with curiosities and foreign presents. Between these cases are lateral openings, perhaps eight feet wide and quite deep, and in these were placed the sick, besides a great long double row of them up and down through the middle of the hall. Many of them were very bad cases, wounds and amputations. Then there was a gallery running above the hall in which there were beds also. It was, indeed, a curious scene, especially at night when lit up. The glass cases, the beds, the forms lying there, the gallery above, and the marble pavement under foot—the suffering, and the fortitude to bear it in various degrees—occasionally, from some, the groan that could not be repress’d—sometimes a poor fellow dying, with emaciated face and glassy eye, the nurse by his side, the doctor also there, but no friend, no relative—such were the sights but lately in the Patent-office. (The wounded have since been removed from there, and it is now vacant again.)


It is important to remember that public galleries like the Patent Office were a rare thing in Whitman’s day. Today, we’re spoiled with dozens of museums and libraries in the nation’s capital, most of which are not only open to the public, but also free to enter. For Whitman, seeing a makeshift hospital in the wings and halls of a gallery, the scene was traumatizing. For someone born closer to the current era, this would have been like putting a triage unit in the Library of Congress after the Pentagon Bombing on 9/11.

Construction of the North wing resumed at the Patent Office shortly after the Civil War, and finally ended in 1868. The final cost of the building came to $2.3 million, roughly equal to $32.5 million in 2018.

The 1870’s brought more change, development, and civic upheaval to the streets of D.C. President Ulysses S. Grant dissolved the city charter of Georgetown, consolidating the harbor and the rest of Washington City into the District of Columbia overnight, and putting control of the town squarely into the hands of City Commissioners. The streets in the Downtown neighborhood were lowered in 1872, and the Patent Office’s steps were renovated to fit the new changes.

Five years later, a fire ravages a wing of the Patent Office– While Mills engineered a fireproof design, the contents of the building were highly flammable. 80,000 models and 600,000 copy drawings were destroyed in the 1877 fire. Local rockstar architect, Adolf Cluss is called to repair and rebuild, later going on to improve much of Mills’ Southern wing.

1877 Patent Office northern wing portion, morning after fire on 24 September 1877, Timothy H. O’Sullivan original photographer – Library of Congress

Over the next fifty years, the United States continued to grow and expand; the Federal Government expanded, too. By 1917, the Department of the Interior moves out of the building, and into new digs South of Foggy Bottom. In 1832, after 92 years in the building, the Patent Office moves out. By the 1950’s, the building was slated for demolition, and conversion into a parking lot.

Eisenhower, luckily, saw value in the historic landmark, and ordered the building to be preserved. In 1958, Congress approved the transfer of the Old Patent Office building to the Smithsonian Institution. In just ten years, the building’s offices were renovated, and completely converted into museum galleries. The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum opened in the spring of 1968, just after the worst of the riots were put down. Armed National Guardsmen patrolled the streets outside the new art galleries in its early days.


While much has changed inside and outside the Old Patent Office, the symbolism of the building endures. Mills’ concept, built as a practical answer to L’Enfant’s impossible vision of the Federal City, became a touchstone for almost every federal building to come after it. It set the tone for future construction and expansion within the federal government, and allowed for grander ideas to take shape, and become manifest. Although it is never featured in such a front-and-center way as either the White House or the Capitol, the Old Patent Office is the third-oldest federal building still standing in the District of Columbia.