National Portrait Gallery


As one of the wonders of the capital city, the Patent Office Building in 1865 was the setting for Lincoln’s second inaugural ball and banquet, an event attended by more than four thousand guests. Women in silks and laces, men in court dress, formal evening attire, or “dazzling uniforms” thronged up the majestic stone stairway into the great south portico, brilliantly illuminated by gas lamps, and ascended the magnificent curving staircase to the grand exhibition hall above. Here, according to newspaper accounts, they admired the columns, the vaulted ceiling and skylight, “elegant tessellated marble floors,” and the “Pompeiian style” tiles. In the enormous east hall, with its thirty-two marble pillars, an orchestra played for dancing until 10 P.M., when the military band struck up “Hail to the Chief” and President and Mrs. Lincoln and their entourage strolled into the hall. After midnight there was a monumental feast at 250-foot tables; some guests stayed on until 4:00 A.M.

After the return of peace the building never again achieved such a moment of splendor, but each year thousands of Americans came to see the ever-growing collection of patent models and other curios—including the original of the Declaration of Independence; Benjamin Franklin’s printing press; George Washington’s field tent, uniform, sword, and commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army; and some of Robert E. Lee’s personal effects. Then, in late September of 1877, a disastrous fire broke out, and before it could be brought under control, fire engines had arrived from as far away as Baltimore. Many patent models and historical displays were rescued, but the upper portion of the building was so gutted that the interior had to be rebuilt. It is the result of that restoration that one sees today.

In 1932 the Patent Office moved out and the Civil Service Commission took over (and immediately signalled its possession by vandalizing the interior of the building—including the beautiful marble columns— with paint of a color known to every government employee as “civil service green”); two years later the fine flight of steps leading to the south portico was removed to permit the widening of F Street; and in 1953 the structure was more seriously threatened when legislation—backed by local merchants—was introduced in Congress to permit it to be razed and replaced by a parking garage. Happily for the building, for Washington, and for posterity, David E. Finley, the Chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, called the matter to President Eisenhower’s attention and the building was saved; Senator Hubert Humphrey introduced the bill to Congress that spared it.

Then, in 1962, the availability of space in the Old Patent Office Building and the need for a home for the National Portrait Gallery came in conjunction, and made for one of those happy marriages of convenience of which even bureaucracy is sometimes capable. At that, it was something of a shotgun affair. Andrew Mellon, who had presented the National Gallery of Art to the nation in 1937, left a bequest of a number of American portraits to that gallery, with instructions that any not actually needed should go to a national portrait gallery, should such a place be in existence twenty years hence. The Mellon trust made the gift in 1942, and precisely twenty years later Congress passed legislation creating the National Portrait Gallery, as a consequence of which thirty-five portraits were transferred to it from the National Gallery of Art.