The Smithsonian
The Renwick Gallery Mary Henry's Diary SI During the Civil War Joseph Henry The Castle


he Old Patent Office Building, now a part of the Smithsonian Institution, was the first federal exhibition hall in the nation’s capital. During the Civil War, the building served as a hospital for wounded Union soldiers, a temporary barracks, and a morgue. In March 1865, it was the site of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural ball. Poet Walt Whitman used to visit the building to attend to the wounded. Praised by him as “the noblest of Washington buildings,” this National Historic Landmark was begun in 1836 and completed in 1868. It was the fourth major federal building constructed in Washington. The Patent Office was saved from the wrecking ball in 1958, and Congress gave it to the Smithsonian in 1962. After extensive interior renovation, the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum opened to the public in 1968.

The neoclassical-style Patent Office Building was intended as “a temple to the industrial arts,” reflecting the new nation's desire for advancement. It was designed to display the models that inventors submitted with their patent applications and also provided space for exhibits of public interest beyond patent models. Such artifacts as the Declaration of Independence, the tent George Washington used in the Revolutionary War, and specimens from explorer Charles Wilkes’s expeditions between 1838 and 1842 were displayed here, as were the holdings of the National Institute—a forerunner of the Smithsonian Institution—which included artworks that formed the foundations of the collections of the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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For the Civil War diary of a U.S. Patent Office examiner, see Washington During the Civil War: The Diary of Horatio Nelson Taft, 1861-1865

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