- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2006

At a time when museums are competing to establish distinctive identities, the National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum have done the unthinkable: They have integrated their exhibitions under one roof so visitors can hardly tell the difference between them.

The once competing institutions, which reopen today after a six-year renovation, have taken advantage of the restoration of their shared home, the former U.S. Patent Office Building, to offer a more confluent and complementary presentation of American ideals and identity. In doing so, they have revived a Washington landmark that is an American masterpiece in itself.

Before the ambitious $283-million preservation project, the museums were sequestered on opposite sides of the monumental Patent Office Building, which stretches from F to G Streets and Seventh to Ninth Streets Northwest. The National Portrait Gallery occupied the southern half and the National Museum of American Art, as it was called back then, the north. Each had its own entrance. Inside, offices and partitions blocked windows and narrowed corridors.

Today, the Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum lay claim to separate wings but without barriers between the galleries and hallways. From shared lobbies off F and G streets, visitors can traverse the entire length and width of the building through temporary and permanent exhibits belonging to both museums.

“We think it’s an advantage that you can to come to one place, which is a museum in itself,” says Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery, on a tour of the museum earlier this week. “The building is the third great cultural possibility here.”

With the spaces of the Patent Office Building now commodious and well-connected, the two museums’ collections can be seen more clearly as related to each other. The American Art Museum’s sweeping chronology of artistic developments, from Colonial days to the present, provides a broad context against which to view the famous people enshrined in the Portrait Gallery.

“We both offer ways of experiencing America through its art,” Mr. Pachter says. “The difference is how we construct that experience. We are a history and biography museum that uses the arts as a way of delivering lives. For them, the art itself is the big story.”

Walking through the well-lit galleries, however, it sometimes is hard to tell which exhibit belongs to which museum. Once the province of white men “10 years dead,” the Portrait Gallery now traffics in the kind of diverse, contemporary art shown by its neighbor. New paintings of authors Tom Wolfe and Toni Morrison, photographs by artists such as William Wegman and pictures of current-day celebrities such as Madonna and Shaquille O’Neal reveal that the museum is no longer just a stodgy repository for presidential likenesses.

“We’re a dinner party with history,” says Mr. Pachter, standing next to the new portrait of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. “The most important thing you can walk away with from seeing our museum is the sense that you’ve met these extraordinary people.”

The larger, more encyclopedic American Art Museum appears to be less changed in its collecting habits, but it has beefed up its holdings of contemporary art. “There used to be a hesitation on our part to collect modern and contemporary art because of the Hirshhorn,” Director Elizabeth Broun says. “We felt the two museums shouldn’t overlap by collecting in the same area. That changed in the 1990s, when we started acquiring contemporary works in anticipation of the reopening.”

The museum also exhibits portraiture by George Catlin, Gilbert Stuart and others that often is more expressive than the stiffs hanging in the smaller Portrait Gallery. Several artists, including John Singleton Copley, Andy Warhol and David Hockney, are represented in both collections.

Supporting the intersection between the paired museums is the well-ordered, solid architecture of the old Patent Office Building. The two institutions have made good use of its long wings, grand staircases and vaulted bays to structure their exhibits much in the way the Patent Office used the building to display thousands of inventions.

By opening up parts of the building and moving administrative offices out of the old structure, they gained an additional 57,000 square feet over their previous incarnation. That has allowed them to put on view about five times the number of works as before, including pieces acquired after the museums closed in 2000.

Preserving architectural integrity

One of the great pleasures of visiting the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, as the Patent Office Building is called now, is being able to experience the full measure of its fine neoclassical setting. Constructed between 1836 and 1868, the two-block-long pile is among the most significant examples of Greek Revival architecture in the country. Responsible for its design were architects who shaped some of our nation’s most revered monuments: Robert Mills, responsible for the Treasury Building and Washington Monument, and Thomas U. Walter, creator of the U.S. Capitol dome.

After a fire destroyed part of the Patent Office Building in 1877, another talented architect stepped in to rebuild it in a Victorian style. Adolph Cluss, who designed the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, jazzed up the upper stories with cast-iron flourishes and colorful ornamentation. The museums pay homage to this history with an exhibit and an excellent publication, “Temple of Invention,” produced for the reopening.

In restoring the building, architect Mary Kay Lanzillotta of the Washington firm Hartman-Cox Architects respected all of the original architects’ contributions while adding much-needed upgrades. Mills’ original entrance portico, behind the Doric columns on the south facade, was reinstated and will serve as an outdoor cafe. Inside, Walter’s granite pillars were cleaned of green paint, and marble floors were repaired with matching stone. In the portions designed by Cluss, decorative encaustic tiles were replicated in England and reinstalled, and cast-iron window surrounds were reproduced in glass-fiber-reinforced gypsum.

One of the biggest challenges for Ms. Lanzillotta was finding ways to insert new infrastructure without destroying the integrity of the historic architecture.

She and her team ingeniously used chimney flues discovered in the masonry walls to house air ducts for heating and cooling, and they concealed new plumbing and electrical systems in the floors. Hand-blown glass from Poland was inserted into more than 550 windows to simulate the look of the original panes.

Like an archaeological dig, the restoration turned up unexpected artifacts that were left in place to tell the history of the building. Visible in a second-floor gallery is a fragment of a ceiling mural painted in the 1850s. Graffiti scrawled by a soldier in 1864, when the building was used as a Civil War hospital, was preserved on a third-level window surround.

Using architecture to advantage

Both museums have capitalized on the old building’s character. On the second floor, the Portrait Gallery reinstalled its American Presidents collection in the Mills-designed Egyptian galleries, where stout sandstone columns underscore the gravity of the subject matter. The American Art Museum turned the most glorious room in the building, the third-floor Lincoln Gallery, into a loft for modern and contemporary art. The site of President Lincoln’s second inaugural ball, the soaring, skylit space is well-suited for the large paintings and sculptures.

Extending this modern-day theme, the National Portrait Gallery has filled the adjacent Cluss-designed Great Hall with the faces and figures of the 20th century. Here, the museum’s newfound diversity is shown off, a bit self-consciously, in representations of activists Rosa Parks, Christopher Reeve and Gloria Steinem. Well-known musicians, athletes, architects, scientists and others also are portrayed in photos and paintings hung around the exuberantly decorated Victorian hall.

Just off this space, the American Art Museum turned the mezzanines of a former library into a publicly accessible art storage and study center. Glass cases filled with plaster busts, academic paintings, folk art and other treasures convey the feeling of a crowded attic. Drawers containing miniatures, medals and jewelry also can be opened. The display allows an additional 3,300 works from the museum’s collection to be viewed, albeit in cramped surroundings. Many of them are as good as those hanging in the galleries.

Exposing the work of repairing art

In keeping with the shared, open spirit of the building, the museums have publicly exposed another area usually off-limits to visitors: the labs where artworks are meticulously cleaned and repaired. Framed in floor-to-ceiling glass, the spaces allow visitors to watch conservators do their painstaking work.

In addition to the five conservation labs, the two museums share a 346-seat auditorium, built under the courtyard at the center of the building. The only public space not currently accessible is the courtyard, where construction of the glass canopy designed by British architect Norman Foster is under way. It is scheduled to be completed at the end of 2007.

Ms. Lanzillotta’s work also is not complete. She is refashioning the monumental staircase on the south side of the building that was removed in 1936, when F Street was straightened. When completed, it will lead visitors back to Mills’ original front portico. The stairs will provide the finishing touch to the preservation of his landmark, described by Walt Whitman as “that noblest of Washington buildings.”

With its conversion into an accessible repository for American culture, the beautifully restored Patent Office building vindicates anew the poet’s praise.

Tops on any list

Six picks (from the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture):

National Portrait Gallery

Portrait of George Washington

Artist: Gilbert Stuart (1796)

This magnificent painting was a gift to the Marquis of Lansdowne, an English supporter of American independence. Known as the “Lansdowne” portrait, it visually summarizes George Washington’s belief that the commander in chief should appear not as a king or a general but rather as a confident civilian representative of our democracy. His image set the tone for the American presidency.

Portrait of Abraham Lincoln

Photographer: Alexander Gardner (1865)

Lincoln’s weariness during the Civil War comes through in this haunting picture. After taking it, the photographer broke the glass plate and pieced it back together to make a print. Some see the crack as portending Lincoln’s impending assassination.

Dempsey-Willard Fight,

Artist: James Montgomery Flagg (1944)

Boxers Jack Dempsey and Jess Willard duke it out in this huge action scene, which surprisingly belongs to the National Portrait Gallery. Dempsey won the 1919 match after just three rounds and hung the huge painting in his New York restaurant. Flagg based his depiction of the heavyweight championship on photos taken during the fight.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Plains Indians portraits

Artist: George Catlin


Pennsylvania-born artist George Catlin, who devoted his career to documenting tribes of Plains Indians, is one of the artists collected in depth by the American Art Museum. Currently on display in both museums are four dozen of the museum’s 458 works by Catlin, showing chieftains both defiant and willing to assimilate into early American culture.

Among the Sierra Nevada, California

Artist: Albert Bierstadt(1868)

Painted in breathtaking detail, this impressive landscape of mountains and lake is imaginary. The German-born Albert Bierstadt painted it in London from sketches he had made during trips to the West and held showings of it in a darkened room as if it were a movie. Displayed in its own curtained alcove, the dramatic canvas gives viewers a thrilling, if misleading, impression of the American frontier.

Electronic Superhighway

Artist: Nam June Paik


One of the American Art Museum’s newest acquisitions is this spectacular, neon-framed video installation by the Korean-born artist Nam June Paik, who died earlier this year. Across a map of the country, different clips from TV broadcasts and films such as the “Wizard of Oz” and “Oklahoma” are shown within the states. The bright, kinetic piece reflects our media culture as well as the vibrancy and regional variety of our nation.

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