- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2006

There may be nothing more American, or more original, than the Old Patent Office Building, the national historic landmark that stands on the entire block bounded by F and G and Seventh and Ninth streets Northwest.

The Greek Revival glory, designed in 1830 as a temple to American ingenuity, became in turn a Civil War hospital where America’s poet Walt Whitman read his work to the wounded, a civil service clerk’s busy warren and finally, in the 1960s, home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.

Now, as the building awaits a gala July 1 reopening as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture after six years of extensive renovation, it has become the centerpiece of a summer-long and citywide celebration of arts and culture called “Washington, D.C., Celebrates American Originals” — after a signature show at the U.S. National Archives — that will run through Labor Day.

“We saw the reopening of the two museums and the renovation of the Old Patent Office Building, as well as the National Archives exhibition, as the keys to a summer-long promotion celebrating the spirit of American originality and ingenuity,” says Angela Fox, executive director and CEO of Cultural Tourism DC, which along with the Washington DC Convention and Tourism Corporation, DC Metro and the American Experience Foundation, has produced and coordinated the cultural fest.

Through music, dance, art, film, theater, lectures and even walking tours dedicated to American one-of-a-kinders, the participating cultural and performance institutions hope to focus summer visitors on American innovation. Many hotels and restaurants will also offer special packages throughout the celebration.

Breakers of the mold

Among the highlights of the “American Originals” festival:

• The National Building Museum explores the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright, nothing if not an “original,” with more than 100 drawings, models and photographs of his H.C. Price Company Tower in Bartlesville, Okla. — the “prairie skyscraper” and the only one he ever built.

• The American Century Theater in Arlington mounts “U.S.A.,” Paul Shyre’s stage version of the monumental, three-in-one Great American Novel by the ground-breaking John Dos Passos, who in turn looks at such pioneers as Isadora Duncan, Rudolph Valentino, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan and the Wright brothers.

• The Corcoran Gallery of Art shows off the ways that contemporary botanical artists render the plants collected by trailblazers Merriweather Lewis and William Clark, on the bicentennial of their expedition to open the American West.

• The National Theatre screens nine films from the acerbic Hollywood director Billy Wilder, born in Germany but blessed with a clear eye and an acute ear for the way Americans talked, wise-cracked, lived and sometimes murdered. Classics in the series include “Double Indemnity,” “The Apartment,” “Some Like It Hot” and “Sunset Boulevard.”

• Washington Walks explores the haunts of the iconoclastic musician Duke Ellington, with a guided tour of his birthplace and the U Street scene, and visits the homes and institutions associated with the one-of-a-kind first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

• More than 20 traditional and nontraditional venues offer the outburst of theater, dance, music, poetry, spoken word, puppetry and assorted oddities that make up the offbeat Capital Fringe Festival, innovation itself.

• The Round House Theatre Bethesda stages “A Murder, A Mystery & A Marriage,” a musical based on a recently discovered short story by Mark Twain, grandaddy of all modern American writing.

• The Kennedy Center revives “Mame” — Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s adaptation of Patrick Dennis’ novel about the grande dame Auntie Mame, the outrageous denizen of Beekman Place. Christine Baranski stars, with choreography by Warren Carlyle and direction by Eric Schaeffer.

• The Wilson House celebrates the 150th anniversary of the birth of the 28th president, Woodrow Wilson, with a comprehensive exhibit that looks at what we don’t know about him. Who might have guessed this former president of Princeton University was dyslexic and couldn’t read until he was 12?

• The National Cathedral offers docent-led tours of its 112 offbeat gargoyles, grotesque caricatures in stone that reflect the best and worst of the culture. Test: Find the computer, the robot camera, the giant fly clutching the can of Raid — and that American original, Darth Vader.

Witnesses to history

The signature exhibit, from which the city’s celebration takes its name, is “American Originals: Eye Witness,” opening June 23 at the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery in the U.S. National Archives.

The show lets a visitor hear the voices, see the sights, feel the emotions of Americans witnessing and recalling watershed events in American and world history.

“It’s about storytelling,” National Archives curator Stacey Bredhoff says. “It’s the personal story, the experience of events we think we know. But when you see a film clip, read a letter, hear a voice, it becomes brand new and immediate, as if it just happened yesterday.”

“Eyewitness” lets you see, for example, President Richard Nixon’s farewell address through the eyes of George H.W. Bush, then chairman of the National Republican Committee, or the violence of the French Revolution through the eyes of Thomas Jefferson. It records astronaut Jim Lovell’s awe at the sight of Earth — “a grand oasis to the big vastness of space” — as he hurtled through nothingness in Apollo 8 in 1968.

The men and women are both American greats and ordinary people. Who but a presidential historian can come up with the name of the doctor at the bedside of the mortally wounded President Lincoln?

“When people remember an event, they’re telling a personal story,” Ms. Bredhoff says. “Some of these selections are remarkable: I found the doctor’s story very moving; he knew right away that the president’s wound was fatal.”

Robert King Stone, M.D., testified:

I at once informed those around that the case was [a] hopeless one; that the president would die; that there was no positive limit to the duration of his life, that his vital tenacity was very strong, and he would resist as long as any man could, but that death certainly would soon close the scene … he died the next morning at about half past 7 o’clock.

Especially vivid is Lady Bird Johnson’s audio diary describing the events of Nov. 22, 1963.

I cast one last look over my shoulder and saw in the president’s car a bundle of pink, just like a drift of blossoms, lying on the back seat. I think it was Mrs. Kennedy lying over the president’s body …

“The instinct we have to tell is as old as humanity” Ms. Bredhoff says. Mrs. Johnson, she says, found her experience “too great a thing to have alone.”

Invention at the center

It’s no wonder the city’s celebration is called “American Originals”: At its center is the record-keeper of American inventiveness, the Old Patent Office Building, an institution Whitman called “the noblest of Washington buildings.”

And when its two museums, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, reopen in the resurrected structure now named for their largest donor, the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, it will be something of a Rip van Winkle moment.

“I think sometimes people have forgotten just what an astounding and magnificent building this was and is,” says Mark Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery.

“Just to watch the building re-emerge over the past few years was an astonishing experience. It was literally like watching the nation’s historic fabric come to life with all the original materials in plain sight. Yes, it’s like bringing a ghost to life.”

When the museums closed in January 2000, the burst of downtown construction still in progress was in its infancy. Now, the museums will be true cultural cornerstones, surrounded by the Verizon Center, the bursting hot Seventh Street corridor, the International Spy Museum, the Hotel Monaco and restaurants that weren’t there six years ago.

Highlighted and restored are the building’s traditional features — its porticoes, modeled after the Parthenon, its colonnades, vaulted galleries and curved double staircase.

Yet the restoration has brought new rhythms that will have the two museums more intimately and freely connected. Gone are the old dead ends, which usually hid offices. Visitors entering from a common entrance on Eighth and F streets can now experience free and clear circulation all the way around through both museums.

Three new features — a storage center for the American Art Museum that will allow visitors to see more of that museum’s collection of more than 40,000 works; a shared conservation center that will provide a view of museum conservators as they treat, restore and handle works of art; and a shared auditorium with concert and performance space that neither museum had before — will be eye-openers for the public.

The courtyard at the center of the complex, which features a glass canopy that allows for year-around activities, is not expected to be completed until early 2007.

Celebrating the new

The two museums will reopen with a cascade of exhibitions, four in the American Art Museum, and numerous permanent and temporary exhibitions in the National Portrait Gallery, as well as “Temple of Invention: History of a National Landmark,” a shared exhibition on the Old Patent Office Building and its history.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum will feature “William Wegman: Funney/Strange,” an in-depth look at the iconoclastic, subversive work of William Wegman, the artist best known for his eccentric photographs of weimaraners. The exhibition features 200 works, including photographs, works on paper, paintings, videos and archival materials.

“American ABC: Childhood in 19th Century America” is a wide-ranging show that features images of children as a way of exploring 19th-century American idealism and identity. It includes paintings, children’s books, prints and schoolbooks and works by Eastman Johnson, Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer.

“William H. Johnson’s World on Paper” features more than 40 prints made by William H. Johnson, the noted black American modernist. The SAAM holds the largest and most complete collection of Johnson’s work.

“Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry” is an installation that highlights more than 60 of Mr. Christenberry’s photographs, sculptures, drawings, paintings and building constructions. Mr. Christenberry, a major national artist, lives in Washington, and selected the works in the exhibition.

At the National Portrait Gallery it will be a mixture of the old and the new. The NPG is famed for its portraits of all of the American presidents, including the famous “Lansdowne” portrait of George Washington, which — along with Alexander Gardner’s famous portrait of Abraham Lincoln — will be part of the exhibition “American Presidents.”

Trace American originals through the permanent collection, all the way from Pocahontas, in a post-1616 portrait by an unknown artist, to contemporary novelist Tom Wolfe in his familiar ice-cream suit, portrayed by Everett Raymond Kinstler in 2000.

Also from the permanent collection are three newly created exhibits in galleries off the third-floor Great Hall: “Twentieth-Century Americans,” “Bravo!” a gallery of composers and performers; and “Champions,” a gallery of American sports figures.

Of particular importance is a gallery featuring the life of one major American figure each year. This year, appropriately, it’s Walt Whitman, who beginning in January 1865 at the very place where he had tended the Civil War wounded, worked at the building’s northeast corner as a clerk for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

See, too, new takes on the art of portraiture in such exhibitions as the “Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition 2006,” featuring the works of 50 to 60 finalists in the gallery’s first national portrait competition; “Eye Contact: Modern American Portrait Painting” and “Portraiture Now” featuring the works of contemporary artists.

It’s a new day for the old museums and for Washington — and yet it’s all original.

Where to view ‘Originals’

Washington’s summer-long “American Originals” celebration draws on the capital area’s cultural institutions, museums and theaters to offer an unusual look at American ingenuity.

For complete information, including details of restaurant and hotel specials, see washington.org/americanoriginals or call the Washington Convention and Tourism Corporation at 202/789-7000.

Meanwhile, here’s a sampler:

• American Century Theater: 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. John Dos Passos’ monumental and well-remembered three-in-one epic novel “U.S.A.” becomes a play adapted by Paul Shyre. Through July 15. 703/553-8782.

• The Capital Fringe Festival: More than 20 traditional and nontraditional venues host theater, dance, music, poetry, spoken word, puppetry and art forms unclassifiable. All day, every day July 20-30. 703/395-6334 or capfringe.org.

• The Corcoran Gallery of Art: 500 Seventh St. NW. “Botanical Treasures of Lewis and Clark” shows contemporary botanical artists’ renderings of the plants brought back from the West by the intrepid explorers. Through July 9. 500 7th Street NW. 202/639-1800.

• Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater: F Street and New Hampshire Avenue Northwest. Christine Baranski stars in this revival of “Mame,” with choreography by Warren Carlyle and direction by Eric Schaeffer. Through July 2. 202/467-4600.

• The National Building Museum: 401 F St. NW. “Prairie Skyscraper: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower” tells the story of one of the masterful American architect’s most unusual creations. Through Sept. 17. 202/272-2448.

• The National Gallery of Art: Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest. “Charles Sheeler: Across Media.” A one-of-a-kind American artist, Mr. Sheeler was influential in painting, drawing, prints, photography and film. Through Aug. 27. 202/737-4215.

• The National Theatre: 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. “Billy Wilder: American Original” presents nine films from the acerbic producer, director and screenwriter. “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Apartment,” “Double Indemnity,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Stalag 17,” “Sabrina,” “The Lost Weekend,” “The Seven-Year Itch” and “One, Two, Three” screen weekly from June 12 to Aug. 14. 202/783-3372.

• The Phillips Collection: 1600 21st St. NW. The collection’s founder, Duncan Phillips, was an original American aristocrat who was inspired by and collected and supported artists like Arthur Dove, John Marin, Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe. “Duncan Phillips: An American Original” celebrates his collection. Through Labor Day. 202/387-2151.

• Round House Theatre: 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Ernest Hemingway said all modern American literature came from “Huckleberry Finn,” and indeed there’s no one so original as Mark Twain. “A Murder, A Mystery & A Marriage: A Mark Twain Musical Melodrama,” a musical version of a recently discovered Twain short story, celebrates his originality. Through June 25. 240/644-1100.

• The Textile Museum: 2320 S St. NW. Museum director Daniel Walker talks about the life of the museum’s founder, George Hewitt Myers, and his work on June 8. The exhibition “Seldom Seen: Director’s Choice from the Museum’s Collections” features 35 rarely exhibited works from South America, Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Japan through July 30. 202/667-0441.

• Washington National Cathedral: Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues Northwest. The “national house of prayer for all people” is not just a church or a Washington institution but an imposing structure in itself. Tours of its 112 gargoyles run through July. 202/537-6200.

• Washington Walks: “Eleanor Roosevelt’s Washington” is a three-hour walk exploring the life and times of the legendary first lady on June 10, July 15 and Aug. 12. “Duke Ellington’s DC” takes a three-hour walk through the jazz giant’s old neighborhoods, focusing on U Street and the heart of black culture in the nation’s capital on June 24, July 29 and Aug. 26. 202/484-1565.

• The Woodrow Wilson House: 2340 S St. NW. A road rally on S Street at the Wilson house Saturday kicks off the year-long celebration of the 150th anniversary of President Wilson’s birth. Featured: Wilson’s original 1923 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost along with vintage vehicles and presidential limousines. A comprehensive exhibition marking the anniversary is on display through Sept. 17. 202/387-4062.

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