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Home arrow Working with Section 106 arrow ACHP Case Digest arrow Fall 2004 arrow District of Columbia: Renovation of the Old Patent Office Building
District of Columbia: Renovation of the Old Patent Office Building

Agency: Smithsonian Institution

In the heart of Washington, DC, on the cross-axis of the L’Enfant Plan between the U.S. Capitol and the White House, the Old Patent Office stands.

Completed in 1867, the building saw more than half a million patents issued and also exhibited the Declaration of Independence. It also served as a temporary Civil War barracks and hospital, and was the site of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural ball. Currently, it houses the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art.

The Smithsonian Institution, which owns the building, has proposed to enclose the Old Patent Office’s courtyard—one of the city’s popular “green oases”—and also create an auditorium under the courtyard for ceremonies and public events. Such a project would create one of the largest event rooms in the city.

The new construction, however, would significantly affect the external and internal expression of the historic Greek Revival structure.

Constructed between 1836 and 1867, the Old Patent Office in Washington, DC, is the largest of the early Federal buildings and intimately associated with the development of the early Republic and its architecture.

In addition to its many historic uses, the building is a part of the city’s historic L’Enfant Plan and is largely the work of Washington Monument architect Robert Mills and Capitol dome designer Thomas U. Walter.

View of the Patent Office Building courtyard, 2002 (Photo: Timothy Bell Photography)



View of the Old Patent Office Building courtyard, Washington, DC (photo: Timothy Bell Photography)




After being saved from demolition a century later, the building, which now houses the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art, is undergoing renovation. In 2003, Congress authorized the renovation and allowed for the possibility of enclosing the building’s courtyard.

In July 2004, the ACHP notified the Secretary of the Smithsonian that the ACHP would participate in Section 106 review of the effects of renovation on the historic character of the National Historic Landmark building.

That same month, the ACHP participated in a consultation meeting on the proposed project with the National Park Service, General Services Administration, DC State Historic Preservation Officer, National Capital Planning Commission, Commission of Fine Arts, Committee of 100 on the Federal City, and the DC Preservation League.

The enclosure will adversely affect the Old Patent Office. While the absence of the Roman dome is a distinguishing feature of Greek architecture, the Old Patent Office’s proposed roof would add a dome-like form to the building known as one of the Nation’s foremost civic buildings of the Greek Revival period. At nighttime, the spill of light from the atrium could further affect the building’s historic appearance.

The Smithsonian has already largely installed the foundations for the columns that will support the new roof of the enclosed courtyard.

Section 213 of the National Historic Preservation Act allows the ACHP to request the Secretary of the Interior to assist the ACHP in discharging its responsibilities. Because of the importance of the Old Patent Office, the ACHP chairman has requested the Secretary of the Interior to prepare such a report, which will detail the significance of the historic property, the effects the proposed undertaking would have on the affected property, and the recommended measures to avoid, minimize, or mitigate adverse effects.

Staff contact: Martha Catlin

Posted December 17, 2004

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