The rooms where soldiers suffered were later used for Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural ball, which Whitman also attended. The irony was startling: “To-night beautiful women, perfumes, the violins’ sweetness, the polka and the waltz,” he wrote, “but then, the amputation, the blue face, the groan, the glassy eye of the dying, the clotted rage, the odor of wounds and blood.” The poet recognized the space’s special resonance: Such contrasting circumstances are the stuff of art. Witness to history at two extremes — sophisticated revelry and base suffering — the Patent Office is all the more perfect a frame for the most powerful expressions of the nation’s artists.
Tragedy and poetry — and politics — form the backstory to many a Washington art institution. The Air and Space Museum, the most visited museum in the world, also stands on the site of a former Civil War infirmary, the Armory Square Hospital, where the wounded from the battlefields of Virginia were taken. Activists searching for a site for what would become the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts campaigned to build it on that spot, but the Air and Space Museum’s stronger lobby won out, and it opened in time for the nation’s bicentennial in 1976.