Architectural History of the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, 1836

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  • Construction began on the Old Patent Office Building in 1836. Construction was delayed due to the Civil War, during which it was used as a barracks, morgue, and hospital for wounded soldiers. The building was finally completed in 1868, and with 330,000 square feet, it was the largest building in the United States.
  • Famous architects Robert Mills and Thomas Ustick Walter were responsible for designing the building and overseeing its construction. In 1877 a fire devastated two of the wings of the building, and were rebuilt by architect Adolf Cluss. The United States Patent Office occupied the building until 1932, after which the Civil Service Commission occupied it. In an effort to save the building from demolition, it was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1958. The building had deteriorated greatly, and the restoration led by the architectural firm Faulkner, Kingsbury and Stenhouse took over ten years. The Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery opened in 1968.
  • Although the Old Patent Office was not officially a Smithsonian building until 1958, it was actually the first place to house Smithsonian collections. Through the 1840s and 50s, the items from James Smithson's bequest were housed and exhibited at the U.S. Patent Office. When the Smithsonian Institution Building (Castle) opened in 1855, the collection was transferred there.
  • The architectural style of the building is Greek Revival, and is one of the finest examples of this style remaining in the United States. The original south wing of the building was built with local Aquia Creek sandstone, the same material that was used to build the White House. The next three wings were constructed with sturdier granite. Exterior features of the building include a pedimented gable, symmetrical design, and a grand entry porch with eight large pillars. According to poet Walt Whitman, it was the "noblest of Washington buildings."
  • The most recent renovation began in 2000 and was completed in 2006. The $266 million renovation that integrated the spaces between the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, was designed by Washington architecture firm Hartman Cox.


  • Walter, Thomas Ustick
  • Cluss, Adolph 1825-1905
  • Mills, Robert 1781-1855
  • United States. Patent Office--Buildings
  • Hartman Cox Architects
  • Smithsonian American Art Museum
  • National Portrait Gallery (U.S.)
  • Patent Office Building (POB)
  • United States Patent Office
  • Faulkner, Kingsburg & Stenhouse


Chronology of Smithsonian History


Ewing, H., & Ballard, A. (2009). A guide to Smithsonian architecture. Washington: Smithsonian Books.

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


  • 1836-1868
  • Civil War, 1861-1865


  • Greek revival (Architecture)
  • Sandstone buildings
  • Conservation and restoration
  • Architecture
  • Art museums
  • Repair and reconstruction
  • Conservation and renovation
  • Museum architecture
  • History
  • SI Buildings, Renovation
  • Sandstone
  • Granite
  • Buildings--Repair and reconstruction
  • Architecture--Conservation and restoration
  • Building--Conservation and renovation


  • United States
  • Washington (D.C.)

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