The exterior of the Smithsonian American Art Museum embodies cornerstones of DC architecture: Greek Revival, historic, and massive. Cynics might even call it forgettable and ubiquitous. The building’s history, along with a new interior courtyard, defy those labels, helping it live up to Walt Whitman’s claim that this is the “noblest of Washington buildings.”

Smithsonian American Art Museum + Kogod Courtyard. Photo by Foster and Partners.

The museum building, which also houses the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, occupies a double city block from 7th Street to 9th Street between F Street to G Street NW, across from the Verizon Center.

Originally the home of the US Patent Office, the building was conceived as a celebration of American innovation represented by the patent process.  A slew of famous architects, including Washington Monument designer Robert Mills and Thomas U. Walter, who worked on the US Capitol building, worked on it during construction, which occurred in phases from 1836 to 1868.

A front elevation of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. Image by the Smithsonian.

The building was not restricted to just patents. It housed Department of the Interior bureaus, a Civil War military hospital and barracks, and President Lincoln’s 1865 inaugural ball at different times. The Civil Service Commission set-up shop in the building after the Patent Office departed in 1932.

In the 1950s, the Civil Service Commission building was threatened with demolition, as it occupied a prime downtown site in the booming District. However, the burgeoning historic preservation movement in the city successfully appealed to President Dwight Eisenhower to save it.

The building became a National Historic Landmark in 1965, highlighting its cultural significance. Only a small fraction of historically significant buildings get this designation, and itand reinforces the oft-repeated claim that the building is one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in DC.

Life as a museum

The Patent Office building joined the Smithsonian Institution when it opened its doors as the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) in January 1968 after four years of renovations. This returned the structure to its original function: showing off some of the best talent America had to offer, though now in art instead of technical innovation.

The exterior entrance to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. Image by the Smithsonian.

The building was transformed again with the addition of the Kogod Courtyard in 2007. World renowned architect Norman Foster teamed with Gustafson Guthrie Nichols on the courtyard, making sure to address concerns from preservationists about changing the character of the protected structure with an undulating glass ceiling that was modern and distinct but did not disrupt the historic building or block natural light.

The Kogod courtyard. Photo by Foster and Partners.

The courtyard design clearly draws inspiration from Foster’s earlier work on the Great Court at the British Museum. However, he was limited on the number of alterations he could make to the historic structure at SAAM and designed a “thin rubber seal a few feet deep [that] connects the glass canopy to the original rooftops, so that its weblike structure seems to hover just above the roofline of the old stone building,” The New York Times said in 2007.

Eight columns in the Kogod Courtyard support the roof.

The Kogod courtyard canopy. Image by Foster and Partners.

Foster’s design does not defer to the historic architecture, but it certainly still respects it. The soaring glass canopy is one of the most captivating features of the building.

The resulting museum and courtyard is now a space in which Washington residents visit regularly, even when not viewing art. The courtyard is often filled with people working on laptops and reading on winter weekdays — a testament to its popularity as one of Washington DC’s iconic public spaces.