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).
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.