Following an extensive, multiyear renovation, the Patent Office Building, the third-oldest federal building in Washington, DC (built 1836 - 1867), has once again opened its doors as the home of the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Collectively, the two museums are known as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, housing the largest collection of American art in the world. Its holdings - more than 40,000 works - tell the story of America though the visual arts and represent the most inclusive collection of American art of any museum today. New features include:
A 346-seat underground auditorium
A conservation lab and art-storage area, both visible to the public
A shared museum store
A shared main entrance for both museums on F Street
The National Portrait Gallery's mission is to tell the stories of men and women, past and present, who have made significant contributions to American history and culture, and to recognize the artists who immortalized these individuals through various forms of imaging.
Through exhibitions, publications, and programs, the National Portrait Gallery combines biography, art, and history through its nearly 20,000 paintings, sculpture, drawings, and photographs – the only museum in the United States to do so.
William Elliott and Robert Mills cooperated (rather unwillingly) to design and build the Patent Office Building, and, despite several fires, it has been occupied by a succession of government agencies, including the Patent Office, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (where Walt Whitman was briefly employed as a clerk), and the Civil Service Commission. While it was the Patent Office, its displays of patent models in galleries on the top floor made it the city's first de facto museum.
During the Civil War, this museum space and the Lincoln Gallery were taken over for Civil War troops and later were used as hospitals. Lincoln's second inaugural ball was held in what is now called the Lincoln Gallery of the Museum of American Art. The building was threatened with demolition in the 1950s and was gradually restored and fashioned into two museums: the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Listed on the DC inventory, National Registey, and designated a National Historic Landmark.