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  • Artistic Anachronisms:Pleasure Reading the Patent Office Building
  • Melissa Gniadek (bio)

O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls,To adorn the burial-house of him I love?

I pleasure read a building. I take great pleasure in spaces in general—city streets and open fields. Books too, of course. But one building in particular has, for me, become a site of the pleasure—the sometimes difficult pleasure—of what we do.

In the summer of 2000, I was an intern at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. I spent several days each week checking facts and securing image reproduction rights for a curator’s book-in-progress. This work took me to various libraries and archives, but the library I visited most often was the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery library housed in the old Patent Office building on F Street. A hulking Greek Revival building constructed in stages between 1836 and 1868, the structure has housed numerous government departments and offices over the years in addition to the Patent Office, including the Department of the Interior, the Commerce Department, and the Civil Service Commission. In its early years it also held a “museum of curiosities”—a precursor to the Smithsonian. Patent models were on display, making the space a kind of museum of technology. Tourists also came to the building to see a copy of the original Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin’s printing press, and artifacts [End Page 214] brought back from the United States Exploring Expedition and Commodore Perry’s expedition to Japan. And when the building first opened in 1841, the art collection that started what is now the American Art Museum was, coincidentally, displayed there. Threatened with demolition at various points in the twentieth century—the building was falling into disrepair and the space in demand for parking—it was saved when it was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1958 to house art collections. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965 and, after renovations and modifications, became the home of the newly created National Portrait Gallery and the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the American Art Museum). Those museums opened in the Patent Office building in 1968.1 The renovations of the 1960s were inadequate, however, and in 2000 the building was closed once again. The gallery walls were bare. Backhoes scraped the ground of the interior courtyard, excavating space for a new state-of-the-art auditorium that would be built beneath a dramatic new enclosed courtyard. But that summer, the library in the west wing of the building was still open and, a few mornings a week, I would enter the building through the loading dock and take an elevator up to the ornate, silent library, where I would confirm the names of various Biddle cousins or the date of a particular event.

This was my first experience with weeks upon weeks of historical research and unstructured writing time, my first experience with the pace of this kind of academic work (slow—indeed, the book I was helping with has not, to my knowledge, been published), and my first experience with the solitude of this type of work. I was not bored. Not exactly. The world of nineteenth-century America was opening up to me in small ways. But this was a new kind of day—a kind of day that was not as romantic as my youthful self might have imagined. And these new kinds of days were piling up on one another. And they could be lonely.

My company during those days was the building itself. I would take long breaks from the dates and names of the library, wandering through cavernous rooms, ignored by the occasional hard-hatted construction worker. I would pause in doorways to watch dust dance in the sunlight streaming through large windows, and I would imagine the things those rooms had seen. On my first visit to the building, the curator I was interning with walked me through the empty halls, past the occasional case displaying a patent model that, for some reason, hadn’t...


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pp. 214-223
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