The Old Patent Office Building, the city's first national museum

Very few monumental government buildings stood in Washington before the Civil War. Other than the Capitol and the White House, City Hall (the subject of our very first blog post more than five years ago) was one that stood prominently on Judiciary Square. The still unfinished Treasury Department building rose grandly on 15th Street. In addition to these, an elegant pair of distinguished neoclassical buildings straddled F Street NW, between the Treasury and the Courthouse, looking slightly out of place on the outskirts of downtown. On the south side of the street was the General Post Office building, now the Hotel Monaco, which we've previously profiled. On the north side was the Patent Office Building, home to one of the oldest agencies of the U.S. government and a grand showcase of its official artifacts. Patents are important!

The Old Patent Office Building, south (F Street NW) facade (photo by the author).
Before work on the Patent Office was begun in 1836, the site was an undeveloped hill on the edge of the embryonic capital. A couple of blocks to the north, Richard Butt built a large potter's kiln in 1827. According to a 1906 reminiscence in The Sunday Star, smoke from the kiln annoyed Butt's neighbors for decades. The only significant structures on the Patent Office site itself were an ice house and the cabin of Jimmy Orr and his wife, squatters who raised chickens and tended an orchard of mulberry, apple, and cherry trees. Orr died just as the square was sold to the government, and sympathetic Patent Office employees chipped in to pay for a small cabin nearby to house his displaced widow.

The Patent Office had previously been located a block to the south in Blodget's Hotel, the largest privately-owned structure in Washington until the federal government bought it in 1810. It had been constructed by Samuel Blodget, Jr. (1757-1814), a native of Massachusetts, as part of an outlandish scheme to finance construction of the capital city through a lottery. The grand prize in the lottery was to be this magnificent hotel, designed by James Hoban (1758-1831), architect of the White House. The lottery was a dismal failure, however, and Blodget lost everything in the process. The government took over the hotel for office space, primarily the Patent Office.

Blodget's Hotel (Source: Library of Congress).

Four years later, the British occupied the city, burning public buildings, including the Capitol and White House. They had set their sights on Blodget's Hotel as well and were about to set it on fire, when William Thornton (1759-1828), head of the Patent Office, intervened. Thornton's exact words to the British officer in command were not recorded, but he apparently argued that the patent records housed in the building were private property and thus not fair targets for the British. One story has it that he claimed that destroying these records of the inventive genius of the American people would be the equivalent of burning down the great Library of Alexandria, a devastating crime against civilization. Whatever his argument, the British apparently were duly convinced of the importance of patents, and they spared Blodget's Hotel. After they were gone, it was the only substantial public building still standing, and Congress met there for about a year while the Capitol was being reconstructed.

Then, in December 1836, a servant accidentally dumped hot fireplace ashes into a wooden refuse box, setting the building on fire. It burned to the ground, destroying thousands of patent models and records. Fortunately, the Declaration of Independence, which previously had been proudly on display in the building, had been moved to the State Department shortly before the fire and was safe. Not so for all the exquisite patent models and records that William Thornton had so valiantly saved from the torches of the British.

In fact, plans had been afoot for several years to build a new, larger, fireproof home for the Patent Office. The new building would be part of a mini-boom in government office construction during the Jackson administration, all of it in the fashionable Neoclassical Revival style. This included the Treasury Department and the General Post Office (which would rise on the site of Blodget's Hotel) as well as the new Patent Office. The trio of buildings was certainly a start toward creating a distinguished seat of government, but it was an incomplete one. When Charles Dickens visited Washington in 1842, his formula for creating a comparably awkward town was to
...plant a great deal of coarse turf in every place where it ought not to be; erect three handsome buildings in stone and marble, anywhere, but the more entirely out of everybody's way the better; call one the Post Office, one the Patent Office, and one the Treasury; ...leave a brick-field without the bricks in all central places where a street may naturally be expected; and that's Washington.
The ostensible designer of the Patent Office was a young, ambitious, would-be architect named William Parker Elliot (1807-1854), who had studied under George Hadfield, architect of City Hall. The real genius behind the building's final design, however, was Robert Mills (1781-1855), who also designed the Treasury and Post Office buildings.

The Patent Office in 1846, when only the sandstone-clad south wing had been built. Photo by John Plumbe (Source: Library of Congress).

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Mills was one of America's first professional architects, learning his trade from James Hoban and Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820). He is probably best known as the architect of the Washington Monument. Mills was a favorite of Andrew Jackson, and he undoubtedly expected the president to choose his design for the Patent Office, but young Elliot's rival proposal had won the backing of key senators. Rather than spend political capital taking one side or the other, Jackson decided to compromise, choosing Elliot's design but directing Mills to be the architect in charge of building the new structure. This awkward resolution would lead to years of rivalry between Mills and Elliot, with Elliot tirelessly plotting ways to undermine Mills. After construction was well underway, Elliot encouraged his Whig friends on Capitol Hill to mount an inquiry into ongoing federal building projects, including the Patent Office, which was portrayed as extravagant and wasteful.

Ground floor staircase and vaults (photo by the author).

Mills came in for all sorts of criticism, most of it unfair. His finest achievements, including the gracefully curving staircase in the center of the building's original wing as well as the elegant arched supporting vaults that allowed for fireproof stone construction, came in for the severest attacks. Architect Thomas Ustick Walter (1804-1887), another young rival of Mills, claimed that Mills' vaults would collapse if not supported by iron tie rods. Walter would go on to become one of the country's most prominent architects and would best Mills in the competition to be architect of the Capitol's House and Senate extensions in 1850. Mills' superb Patent Office designs survived most of the criticism, but in 1851 Mills himself was dismissed, largely on the basis of trumped up charges that he mismanaged construction contracts. Walter took his place, finishing work on the Treasury and Post Office buildings as well as the Patent Office. At the time, the vaulting for the hall on the top floor of the building's east wing had just been set in place and was secured with temporary tie rods. Though the tie rods should have been removed when the ceiling was finished, Walter left them in place. The unneeded tie rods remain there today as a perpetual reminder of the architectural bickering that plagued the building's construction.

Superfluous tie rods mar Robert Mills' graceful vaults in the top floor East Gallery (photo by the author).

The Patent Office building was constructed in stages, the first being the south wing with its grand central portico bristling with heavy Doric columns. The Aquia Creek sandstone construction, dictated by Congress, gives it a brawny, imperious look. Mills had wanted to substitute marble, but President Martin Van Buren, who had succeeded Jackson, refused. In contrast, the east, west, and north wings, constructed in later years, are of marble. When finished in 1867, the building's four wings surrounded an open courtyard. Offices were located throughout the lower floors, while the top floor featured large open galleries for displaying patent models.

Stereoview of the Model Hall. The model display cases are among the columns on either side of the center aisle (author's collection).

The practice of displaying models (which inventors were required to submit with their patent applications) had begun at Blodget's Hotel, called the "American Museum of the Arts" by The National Intelligencer in 1836. The model hall on the top floor of the new building had room for vastly more patent models as well as many other unrelated government artifacts. In addition to the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin's printing press was there, as were artifacts from a wide variety of sources. According to historian Charles J. Robertson, two thirds of the display cases were filled with artifacts gathered by the government-sponsored Wilkes Expedition to the South Pacific, which lasted from 1838 to 1841. The mission had been led by the colorful Lt. Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), who had a reputation for being arrogant and capricious, Wilkes was court-martialed (but acquitted) on his return for mistreating his subordinate officers and for excessive punishment of his sailors; he may have been a model for Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab in Moby Dick.

Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes (Source: Library of Congress).

In addition to the Wilkes items were numerous paintings, sculpture, relics and curios of every sort, including many medals awarded to military heroes. When thieves stole gold, silver, and jewelry from the museum in 1848, the newspapers enumerated some of the items that had been taken: ancient Roman gold coins, Peruvian gold medals form the 1820s, a diamond-studded gold snuff box, a pearl necklace, and the scabbard of a gold sword presented to Commodore James Biddle (1783-1848).

By 1860, the non patent-related items (at least, the ones that hadn't been stolen) were transferred to the Smithsonian, where they went on display in the institution's Gothic Revival building on the Mall. An article in The Evening Star noted that items "such as the collection of the Exploring Expedition, under Captain Wilkes, in South America and the South Seas; that of Lieutenant Herndon's exploration of the Amazon; Capt. Stansbury's exploration of the Great Salt Lake; Capt. Perry's Japan Collections, &c, &c" had all been moved to the Smithsonian, with Congress providing a generous $1,000 annually for their upkeep.

Meanwhile, the patent models, which by law had to be readily accessible to the public, remained on display in the Patent Office's galleries and quickly filled the spaces vacated by the other collections. Several Patent Office employees were regularly stationed in the model hall to open display cases for those wishing to examine the models. "The models are placed in large show cases in such a manner as to be easily seen... Great care is taken that no model be injured by unskillful handling, while, at the same time, every reasonable facility for research is courteously afforded," noted The New York Tribune in 1857. It called the patent model display "by far the first of its kind in the world, and of all museums it certainly is the most interesting, and of the greatest benefit to the human race." A visit to see the patent models remained de rigueur for early Washington tourists, even with the Smithsonian's competing exhibits beckoning on the Mall.

Detail from an early stereoview of the south facade of the Patent Office. The sandstone facade has been painted white, at Robert Mills' insistence, to look like marble (author's collection).

The arrival of the tumultuous Civil War years would wreak havoc on the Patent Office and the city in general. The Patent Office was one of the first sites to be affected. That story will come in our next installment.
* * * * *

I am particularly indebted to Charles J. Robertson's beautiful and thoroughly researched history of the Patent Office Building, Temple of Invention: History of a National Landmark (2006). Additional sources for this article included: A Popular Catalogue of the Extraordinary Curiosities in the National Institute (1859); Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation, Vol. I (1842); Ernest Ingersoll, Handy Guide to Washington and the District of Columbia (1897); Sara Amy Leach, ed., Capital IA: Industrial Archeology of Washington, D.C. (2001); Charles Moore, Washington Past and Present (1929); Pamela Scott & Antoinette J. Lee, Buildings of the District of Columbia (1993); National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the Old Patent Office (1965); and numerous newspaper articles.

* * * * *

To receive Streets of Washington by email: click on this link and choose "Get Streets of Washington delivered by email" from the Subscribe Now! box on the upper right hand side of the page.


Popular Posts