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Architectural Chronology / American Art
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About the Museum

Architectural Chronology of the Museum Building

The National Historic Landmark building that houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery is one of the oldest public buildings constructed in early Washington, D.C., and is considered one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the United States. Several important early American architects were involved in the original design of the building, including Robert Mills (1781–1855), Ithiel Town (1784–1844), Alexander Jackson Davis (1803–1892), Thomas U. Walter (1804–1887) and William Parker Elliot (1807–1854).


1836
On July 4, President Andrew Jackson authorizes the construction of a fireproof patent office. The site at Eighth and F streets N.W. had been reserved on Pierre L'Enfant's capital city plan for a nondenominational national church or a pantheon for the country's heroes.


1836–1842
The south wing was completed under the direction of Robert Mills, then Architect of Public Buildings. The Patent Office moved into the building in 1840. The government's historical, scientific and art collections, including the Declaration of Independence and George Washington's Revolutionary War camp tent, were housed on the third floor, then called the National Gallery.


1849–1855
The east wing was constructed to house the Department of the Interior, including the Indian Office and the Agricultural Bureau, and was initially built under the supervision of Robert Mills, who was replaced in 1851 by Thomas U. Walter, Architect of the Capitol. This wing is the only portion of the building that remains today as originally constructed.


1852–1857
The west wing was constructed under the supervision of Thomas U. Walter and Edward Clark, his assistant. Its lower floors held the General Land Office.


1856–1868
The north wing was begun under the supervision of Edward Clark and was eventually completed by Thomas U. Walter. The Civil War and lack of funding interrupted its construction. The total cost of the building was $2.3 million.


1861–1863
The building was used as temporary barracks in the early days of the Civil War and served as a hospital and morgue after the battles of Manassas (Bull Run), Antietam and Fredricksburg. Walt Whitman tended to wounded Union soldiers here.


1865
On March 6, President Abraham Lincoln held his inaugural ball on the third floor of the building.


1872
The exterior portico steps on the south wing were modified when the surrounding streets were lowered.


1877
The upper floors of the west and north wings were ravaged by fire. Nearly 87,000 patent models were destroyed.


1878–1881
Adolf Cluss and his partner Paul Schulze reconstructed the damaged west and north wings.


1883–1885
The south wing of the third floor, known today as the Great Hall, was redecorated in the popular Victorian Renaissance style of the day by Cluss.


1917
The various Department of the Interior bureaus vacated the building.


1932
After 92 years, the Patent Office moved out of the building.


1932–1963
The Civil Service Commission occupied the building.


1936
The monumental exterior steps on the south wing were removed to accommodate the widening of F Street and a new entrance was constructed at the first floor.


1953
The building was slated for demolition to make way for a parking lot. The nascent historic preservation movement championed its cause and successfully campaigned to save it.


1955
President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation that saved the building, which then became a symbol for the historic preservation movement. Congress transferred the building to the Smithsonian in 1958.


1964–1968
The architectural firm Faulkner, Kingsbury & Stenhouse oversaw the building's transformation into museum galleries.


1965
The building was designated a National Historic Landmark.


1968
In January, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery opened to the public with President Lyndon B. Johnson presiding.


2000
The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum closed the building in January for extensive renovations.


2005
On Oct. 12, the Smithsonian announces that the two museums and their activities are to be known collectively as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.


2006
On July 1, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery opened in their gloriously restored historic home in the heart of a revitalized downtown Washington, D.C.


2007
On Nov. 18, the museums' Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard opened to the public. The enclosed courtyard with its elegant glass canopy was designed by world-renowned architects Foster + Partners who were assisted in the creation of the courtyard's interior design by internationally acclaimed landscape designer Kathryn Gustafson of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd.

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