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Indepth Arts News:

"Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery Announce Upcoming Renovation "
1999-08-11 until 1999-08-11
Smithsonian National Museum of American Art and its Renwick Gallery
Washington, DC, USA United States of America

A major renovation of the Old Patent Office Building in Washington, D.C., historic home of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum, and centerpiece of the revitalized downtown district, is scheduled to begin in early January 2000 and proceed for approximately three years. The last day for visitors to American Art will be Jan. 3, 2000; the last day at the Portrait Gallery will be Jan. 9, 2000.

Praised by Walt Whitman as the noblest of Washington buildings, this landmark is, in the eyes of many, the finest example of Greek Revival architecture in the United States. Begun in 1836 and completed in 1867, it was the fourth major federal building constructed in Washington. A National Historic Landmark, the Patent Office was saved from the wrecking ball in 1958, and Congress gave it to the Smithsonian in 1962. After extensive interior renovation, the Portrait Gallery and American Art opened to the public in 1968.

During the coming renovation of the Old Patent Office, the American Art Museum will continue to welcome visitors to its Renwick Gallery, which is dedicated to American crafts. In addition, the Renwick's Grand Salon will feature highlights from the museum's collection. Nearly 500 masterworks from the permanent collection also will travel the country in eight thematic exhibitions, and will be shown in more than 70 museums.

The Portrait Gallery has organized several exhibitions, including four new shows drawn from the collection, that will travel to museums and other institutions in the United States, Europe and Japan while the museum is closed. Portraits of presidents from Washington to Clinton, masterworks of painting, photographs of notable women of the 20th century and masterpieces from the gallery's collection of modern American portrait drawings are among the exhibitions going on tour.

The work we are about to do in this extraordinary building is essential to the security of the precious works of art that will be displayed in it, says Alan Fern, director of the Portrait Gallery. When the workmen leave, the building's systems will be up to date, the restored skylights on the third floor will create an exciting visual environment that has been unavailable for more than a century and the public will have substantially more space to visit.

The renovation will restore the original grandeur to this majestic building, creating a showcase for our collections where visitors will enjoy new galleries and amenities, said Elizabeth Broun, director of the American Art Museum.

Renovation plans The planned $60 million renovation has been designed in concert with Hartman-Cox Architects and will be the first for the Old Patent Office in more than 30 years. Plans include replacement of all heating, air-conditioning, electrical and plumbing systems as well as upgrades to the phone and data communication systems. Extensive work on the exterior masonry will take place, and interior walls, floors and ceilings will be restored or rebuilt. Improved access throughout the building will be a priority. Restoration of the skylights and replacement of the two-acre roof is already underway in an advance project that joins state-of-the-art technology with a historically relevant copper skin.

A newly configured entrance and lobby (located at Eighth and F streets) will introduce visitors to each museum's collections and programs, and the common cafeteria and the two museum shops will be enlarged.

Approximately 60,000 square feet will become available for new galleries and public areas when the library and the staff move permanently to the Victor Building, located at Ninth and H Streets N.W. The relocation of art storage, the conservation lab and workshop areas are also under discussion. The Victor Building, recently acquired by the Smithsonian Institution, will also house a new American Art Center offering resources for educators, researchers and the general public.

History of the Old Patent Office Building

The neoclassical-style Patent Office, built on a site designated by Pierre L'Enfant for a nondenominational church to honor the nation's heroes, is arguably the finest expression of the Greek Revival style that swept America between the 1820s and 1840s. In selecting the Doric architectural order, the team of William Parker Elliot (c. 1807-1854) and Ithiel Town (1784-1844) meant to evoke classical Greece's concept of direct democracy with its emphasis on the common man, a philosophy of government that had gained popularity during Andrew Jackson's presidency. Jackson himself laid the cornerstone in 1836.

The quadrangular building built around a central courtyard was intended to be erected wing by wing, in keeping with the young nation's growing needs and resources. President Jackson named Robert Mills, who had submitted a competing architectural plan, as the supervising architect for the project and authorized modifications to the Town and Elliot design. The first wing (south) was completed in 1840 and contained the largest exhibition hall in the nation to date. The building's eastern extension was begun in 1849 to house the newly established Department of Interior. Mills lost his post in 1851 to Thomas U. Walter (1804-1887), who abandoned Mills' technique of fireproofing with masonry vaults for the contemporary system of using iron beams for ceilings, floors and roof structures. Construction of the west and north wings followed, with the building being completed in 1867.

The Patent Office was intended as a temple to the industrial arts, reflecting the new nation's desire for advancement. It was designed to display the models that inventors submitted with their patent applications and also provided space for exhibits of public interest beyond patent models.

Artifacts such as the Declaration of Independence, the tent George Washington used in the Revolutionary War, and specimens from explorer Charles Wilkes' (1789-1877) expeditions of 1838 to 1842 were displayed here as were the holdings of the National Institute—the forerunner of the Smithsonian Institution—which included artworks that formed the foundations of the collections of the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum. During the Civil War the building served as a hospital for wounded Union soldiers, temporary barracks and morgue. In March 1865, it was the site of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural ball.

Interest in historic preservation after World War II was ultimately responsible for preserving this national architectural treasure. In 1953, legislation supported by the General Services Administration argued for the building's removal to make way for a parking garage. The effort to save the building was led by David E. Finley, chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts and, later, a founding member of the Portrait Gallery Commission; the American Institute of Architects; and preservationists.

Legislation in 1958 transferred the Patent Office Building to the Smithsonian Institution to house certain art collections of the Smithsonian, and in 1962 President John F. Kennedy signed a bill establishing the National Portrait Gallery. Major interior renovation followed and in 1968 the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian's American Art Museum) and the National Portrait Gallery opened to the public. The following year the surrounding neighborhood was devastated in the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination.

The December 1997 opening of the MCI Center, immediately to the east of the museums, and the opening of F Street—preceded by years of redevelopment carried out by the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation—has spurred growth in the area so that the renovated Old Patent Office Building will serve as the centerpiece of a new downtown Washington.

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