Kogod Courtyard – looking up – Smithsonian American Art Museum – 2013-01-04
Image by Tim Evanson
Standing in the east of the Kogod Courtyard looking up at the canopy in the central courtyard linking the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., in the United States.
U.S. patent law of 1790 required inventors to submit a scale model of their invention. In 1810, Congress authorized the purchase of the unfinished Blodgett’s Hotel to house the U.S. Post Office and the Patent Office. But the patent office quickly ran out of space due to the hundreds of models it had to house. Even though Blodgett’s Hotel was enlarged in 1829, the need for a new building was clear. On July 4, 1836 (the same date it enacted the landmark Patent Act of 1836), Congress authorized erection of a new patent office building. But even as ground was broken for the new building, Blodgett’s Hotel burned to the ground on December 15, 1836, causing the loss of nearly all its records and models, and its entire library.
Architect Robert Mills designed the new Patent Office building. Mills was a protegé of Benjamin Henry Latrobe (architect of the Capitol) and James Hoban (architect of the White House), and had designed many important churches in the U.S. as well as a highly regarded prison in New Jersey notable for its reformatory rather than punitive aspects. 1836 was “the year of Mills”. Not only did he win the Patent Office commission, but his designs for the Washington Monument and the Treasury Building were also chosen by the federal government.
The Patent Office building was built on a large public square which Pierre L’Enfant had originally set aside for a massive nondenominational church. Both G Street and F Street were diverted around this square, which was a third larger than the average block in the city. Mills designed a Greek Revival structure that would have massive, ceremonial entrances on both the north and south sides. His model was the Parthenon in Athens. This was a new design, for most neoclassical buildings in D.C. had been based on Roman structures or Romanesque Revival buildings constructed during the Renaissance (1400 to 1650). Mills was a big promoter of “fireproof” buildings made with as little timber as possible. This meant using masonry piers and vaults, and iron trusses where possible. As this was the day of whale-oil lighting, Mills designed the building to have a large inner courtyard so that light could reach both the inner and outer offices. The fourth floor of the building also had skylights (“light courts”); this meant the fourth floor could be used for clerical offices (which needed a lot of light), while models, archives, and the library could be on the darker first, second, and third floors.
The Patent Office was made part of the State Department in 1802, because patents involved international law. Under the supervision of the Secretary of State, the south wing of the Patent Office was completed in 1840. In 1849, Congress created the Department of the Interior, and transferred the patent office to this new department. The Interior Department moved into the Patent Office Building alongside its new agency.
Criticizing architects was the main sport of Congress in the early days of the republic. Few buildings were erected with federal funds anywhere in the country (except for post offics and customs houses), and members of Congress were routinely criticized for “subsidizing” the growth of Washington by allocating money for construction there. Furthermore, architects who lost competitions wasted no time in undermining the reputation and work of those who won them, hoping to get the architect fired and to replace him.
Sure enough, construction on the Patent Office building was very slow. Mills was frequently attacked for incompetence, and in congressional committees (hardly staffed with experts!) forced him to add unnecessary tie rods and iron bracing to the building. His most critical opponent wa William Easby, commissioner of public buildings. Easby ran a quarry, and had lost several contracts for the Patent Office building after supply far inferior product. He now took his reveange, repeatedly and without evidence attacking the structural soundsness of Mills’ designs. Mills’ relationship with Congress soured, and he was dismissed in April 1851.
Another of Mills’ harshest critics was architect Thomas U. Walter. A believer in Greek Revival architecture, Walter had designed a large number of banks, churches, courthouses, prisons, and residences in the country. In 1850, he won the competition for the design of the east extention of the U.S. Capitol (and would later design, with Captain Montgomery Meigs of the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Capitol dome).
In 1852, Congress appropriated money for the construction of the east wing, the west wing, and the basement beneath the courtyard. The east wing was completed and occupied in January or February of 1853. This was followed by money for the facade of the north wing in 1856, and completion of the west wing (for patent models) and more construction of the north facade in 1857. The west wing opened in 1856. Money was approved for adding the fourth floor to the west wing in 1858, and completion of the north wing in 1859.
Due to the exigencies of the Civil War, the north wing was not completed and occupied until 1867.
The third floor and attic of the west and north wings of the Patent Office were destroyed by fire in 1877. The cause of the blaze was never fully determined, although many thought that sparks from chimneys landed on the wooden roof above the patent model rooms. (Others thought the fire originated in the patent model rooms.) Not surprisingly, Mill’s masonry vaults withstood the fire; Walter’s much weaker iron-braced vaults collapsed.
Local German-American architect Adolf Cluss was hired to rebuild the Patent Office Building. Cluss had designed a large number of churches, hotels, office buildings, residences, retail buildings (including the city’s first department store, the Lansburgh), and schools in the city. He designed the first Department of Agriculture headquarters in 1867, Center Market (the most advanced public marketplace and grocery store in the country) in 1871, and Eastern Market in 1872 (it still stands), and he rebuilt the Smithsonian Castle in 1867 after a devastating fire there. (His work on the Patent Office reconstruction won him the competition to design the Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building in 1879.) In 1872, Cluss was named City Engineer, and he oversaw the design and construction of the great expansion of public works that transformed Washington in the 1870s: street paving, sewer construction, gas lines, street lighting, and the planting of thousands of trees.
Cluss largely retained the neoclassical facades by Mills and Walter, but made some changes to reflect a more Renaissance look and feel. His greatest changes, however, came in the interior. He significantly strengthened the structural elements of the interior (so they could withstand another fire), which created numerous marble pillars and beautiful vaulted masonry ceilings throughout the interior. He also paved the floors with brilliantly colored encaustic tile, added wonderfully detailed decorative iron railings, and lined the halls with marble wainscoting. He also added a grand double-curved staircase to the south entrance, a Great Hall to replace the model rooms, and installed brilliant stained glass windows throughout. Cluss also redesigned the grand south entrance staircase, which had been damaged by firefighters in 1877.
The Patent Office used the building until 1932, when it moved to new headquarters due to space needs. The Civil Service Commission occupied the building afterward. Appallingly, the widening of F Street in 1935 amputated the monumental south stairs. The Patent Office Building was due to be demolished in 1953. But in one of the first preservation efforts in D.C., it was saved. President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave it to the Smithsonian in 1958. Starting in fall 1964, it was renovated into a museum by the firm of Faulkner, Kingsbury & Stenhouse. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965, and opened as the National Museum of American Art (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) and the National Portrait Gallery in January 1968. The north wing housed the art museum and the south wing the portrait gallery. Offices and a cafe occupied the east wing, and the west wing was empty. The open-air courtyard had an outdoor cafe.
By 1999, the Old Patent Office Building was in serious need of renovation. Much of the interior space had been converted into office space, making visitor circulation poor. Drop-ceilings of particleboard covered up the vaulted ceilings, many windows had been boarded up on the inside and outside (to prevent light from entering and to add display space), and hallways had been partitioned to add office space and create narrow, ugly galleries. Floors were built across the open space between the mezzanines in the Great Hall to add more space, the great double-staircase on the south side was concealed and used for staff only, and much of the interior moldings, pilasters, cornices, pillars and capitals had been covered over with plywood to create a “modern” look. Outside, the porticos had been closed off, and in some cases concealed or altered to make the columns appear to be pilasters (fake columns). The great north staircase was closed, and the south staircase replaced with modern steel steps.
The building closed in 2000. Most of the modifications to the interior were ripped out, revealing the amazing, colorful magnificence of the original building’s interior. The Great Hall was restored, the north staircase reopened, the double-staircase in the south reopened and restores, the colonnades restored, the vaulting in the galleries revealed, the windows reopened, and the fourth floor skylights reinstalled. Full circulation on the first three floors was also restored. Most significantly, the open-air courtyard was covered over to create a new dining and performance space. Although this was not part of the original renovation project, the Smithsonian began considering enclosing the courtyard in 2002. Approval from Congress was secured in August 2003.
The renovation was overseen by architects Warren Cox and Mary Kay Lanzillotta of the D.C. firm of Hartman-Cox Architects. The Kogod Courtyard canopy was designed by the British firm of Foster and Partners in cooperation with the British firm of Buro Happold. Interior and exterior landscaping was designed by the landscape architectural firm of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol.
The total cost of the was 3 million — 6 million in federal money, million in miscellaneous private donations and million from the Kogod family for the courtyard, and million in miscellaneous private donations for preservation of the building.
The Old Patent Office Building reopened in July 2006. The Kogod Courtyard opened in November 2007.
Renovations included the Nan Tucker McEvoy Auditorium in the basement. The Great Hall was completely restored along with its two mezzanines. The Luce Foundation Center for American Art was built around the circumference of the Great Hall, and on the two mezzanines above it. This new gallery space displays more than 3,300 artworks in secure glass cases, paintings densely hung on screens, three-dimensional art (sculptures, etc.) on shelves, and small artwork (miniatures, medals, jewelry) in pneumatic drawers.
Northwest corner of third floor contains office space for the two museums. But the third and fourth floor mezzanines now house the Lunder Conservation Center — a space where the public can see artwork being restored and conserved, and where information on art preservation and curation is displayed and provided in computer stations and kiosks. Third floor mezzanine space over the grand double-staircase was also opened creating two new, narrow gallery spaces.
But the most astonishing change was the creation of the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard. (Robert Kogod was CEO of the Charles E. Smith Co., a huge real estate development firm in D.C., and his wife Arlene Smith Kogod is heir to the Smith fortune.) To cover the 28,000-square-foot courtyard, a system of eight aluminum columns was built to support the canopy without putting any structural stress on the Old Patent Office Building itself. The canopy is an aluminum grid containing double-glazed glass panels, which appears to float over the courtyard.
Kathryn Gustafson of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol designed the new courtyard interior. The grass and pathways were removed, and black granite paving installed. White marble planters on the south and north sides contain ficus and black olive trees, ferns, shrubs, and seasonal plantings. Four water scrims, each a quarter-inch deep, run down the south-center axis.