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The Patent Office Building, owned by the Smithsonian Institution, is the home of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. The Smithsonian is planning to build an auditorium in the open courtyard in the center of the building. Excavation of the courtyard to construct the auditorium would disturb or destroy any archeological resources that may be present. To identify these potential resources, the Smithsonian sponsored a documentary research investigation, conducted by John Mimer Associates, Inc., to provide background historical information on the Patent Office and to assess the significance of any archeological resources that may be in the courtyard.
The block on which the Patent Office Building sits was set aside in L’Enfant’s plan for the city of Washington, D.C., as Reservation 8, the site for a national church, although it was never used for that purpose. The Patent Office was built on the site, beginning with the South Wing in 1836. A greenhouse was erected north of the South Wing in 1842 and extended in subsequent years to house exotic plants brought back from exploration voyages. The National Gallery occupied an upper floor of the Patent Office Building from 1843 to 1857 and displayed other interesting specimens from the voyages. After just a few years, the greenhouses were moved to a different location to make way for the construction of the East and West Wings between 1849 and 1856. Construction soon started on the North Wing, which was finished by 1867. By this time the courtyard had been landscaped with geometric parterres, flowerbeds, and fountains surrounded by flagstone walkways. A huge fire destroyed the roof and upper floor of the West and North Wings in 1877, after which these areas were re-built with more fire-retardant materials. A number of alterations and improvements were imposed on the building and grounds during the twentieth century.
While there may be evidence of these activities as archeological deposits beneath the surface of the courtyard, none is considered significant or likely to add significantly to our knowledge of the Patent Office courtyard. Therefore, no archeological excavation is recommended.