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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Temple of Invention

On July 4, 1836, Congress approved the construction of a patent office building. The design would celebrate American creativity and scientific advancements. The nation’s respect for invention dates back to the founding of the country. Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution states that “The Congress shall have Power to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The federal government passed its first patent act on April 10, 1790.

An 1840 letter from Patent Commissioner Henry Ellsworth illustrates how the country valued invention not only as creativity, but also as a symbol of freedom and independence:

It is now proposed to establish, at the seat of Government, a NATIONAL GALLERY, to remain a perpetual exhibition of the progress and improvement of the arts in the United States. Here the most beautiful specimens of the genius and industry of the nation will be found; and what American can visit the Gallery, and not be still prouder of his country, and feel that while we are free, we are also independent.1

The Patent Office building took 30 years and several architects to complete. Upon completion, it was the largest Greek Revival structure built by the United States government. It remained so throughout the 19th century. The Greek Revival style comes from the architecture of Ancient Greece. The Ancient Greeks are the earliest society known to practice democracy. Therefore, the style became popular in the United States for government buildings. Greek Revival was the first “national” style in America. Buildings in this style share many characteristics of a Greek temple. The front sides display prominent porticos (a type of porch) with large columns below a pediment (a triangular section). Greek Revival buildings are usually composed of stone or a material that looks like it. They also carry low-pitched roofs.

The completed building takes up two city blocks. Its four wings form a rectangle enclosing a central courtyard. Virginia freestone and sandstone compose the south wing. Maryland marble composes the east and west wings. Granite composes the north wing. The first part of the building to be completed was the south wing in 1842. Before construction had even been finished, the Patent Office moved in in 1840. At the time of the ball in 1865, the building had interior gas lighting, running water, and lots of room. The large empty hall on the top floor of Patent Office Building’s nearly finished north wing was the largest vacant space available for dancing in the city at the time. Lincoln spared no expense to celebrate his re-election in style. Construction on the building finished in 1868.

The purpose of the Patent Office building was to display patent models but it offered more than that. This building also held some of the government’s historical, scientific, and art collections.

Two of the most important items it displayed were the Declaration of Independence and George Washington’s camp tent from the Revolutionary War. In 1858, those items moved to the Smithsonian Institution’s newly completed “Castle” building. This created extra space for more patent models.

From 1849 to 1917, the Patent Office building also held various bureaus of the Department of the Interior. During the Civil War, it became a military hospital and barracks. In 1877, there was a large fire that ruined most of the building. Only the west wing of the building survived. Approximately 87,000 accepted patent models were lost in the fire. One of the most valued models that burned was Robert Fulton’s steamboat design. A design competition for the building’s reconstruction focused on the more ornamental Victorian style. Construction began in 1879.

The Patent Office housed patent workers until 1932. That year, the Civil Service Commission took it over. On March 28, 1958, Congress gave the building to the Smithsonian. In 1965, the building received the privileged status of a National Historic Landmark. This designation means that the U.S. government considers the building to be historically important to the whole country. Today, the Patent Office building is known as the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.


Questions for Reading 2

1. When did the United States pass its first patent act? What ideals/values did the U.S. want to celebrate by building a patent building?

2. What were some of the reasons that this building was selected for Lincoln’s second inaugural ball? Do you think that the building’s architectural style was a factor? Why or why not?

3. Besides serving as office and exhibit space, what else has the Patent Office been used for?

4. Do you think this building is nationally significant? Why or why not?

Reading 2 was compiled from the National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, Old Patent Office, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1971; National Historic Landmarks “Frequently Asked Questions” website; National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum “Temple of Invention” online exhibition based on the exhibition and publication by Charles J. Robertson, Temple of Invention: History of a National Landmark (London: Scala Publishers, Ltd., 2006) ; and the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery’s “Architectural History of the Main Museum Building.”

1 “Temple of Invention,” Smithsonian American Art Museum.


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