By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 3, 2005
Reversing two previous approvals, the National Capital Planning Commission yesterday rejected the design for an immense glass canopy covering the courtyard of the historic Old Patent Office Building, home to two Smithsonian Institution museums.
As a result of the commission's 6-5 vote, the Smithsonian will be forced immediately to cease work on the canopy designed by the Foster and Partners of London, the world-renowned firm headed by Lord Norman Foster. The commission also severely chided the Smithsonian for its 2003 demolition of the existing courtyard.
"We are just enormously disappointed," said Smithsonian Deputy Secretary Sheila Burke after the vote, "but we are determined to move forward and do what we need to do to get this important project on track." Burke said the setback will not affect next year's reopening of the two museums -- the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery -- that have been closed since 2000 for major building renovations.
The commission held two votes last year, first to approve the canopy concept and then to approve the preliminary design. In January, the Commission of Fine Arts also endorsed the design.
Objections to the design by key historic preservation groups were instrumental in the planning commission's change of heart. The Smithsonian's plans were emphatically rejected by the Department of Interior, the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the city's Historic Preservation Division and the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation.
All of these groups complained that the canopy as envisioned was too high and would detract, especially when lit at night, from the character of the building, whose finely proportioned Greek Revival exteriors were principally designed in the 1830s by Robert Mills, also the primary architect of the Washington Monument.
In a written report last April, both the Advisory Council and the secretary of the interior found that "actions taken by the Smithsonian to date are wholly inadequate to avoid serious adverse effects to both the Old Patent Office and the L'Enfant Plan." The report recommended either that the canopy be lowered or that the design be abandoned, and that the Smithsonian should "take steps to return, to the extent practical, the courtyard to its appearance prior to demolition."
"This is one of the most important buildings in the country and we expect the Smithsonian Institution to treat these historic buildings with the same care they give to the holdings in their museums," said Patricia Gallagher, executive director of the planning commission.
The staff report approved by the commission yesterday contained a scathing condemnation of Smithsonian actions so far, especially its excavation of the once-grassy courtyard. The Smithsonian's "prior decisions, construction, and demolition have led to the irrevocable loss of character-defining elements of the Patent Office Building," the report said.
Planning for the undulating glass ceiling, similar in many ways to the Foster-designed glass canopy completed in 2000 for the British Museum courtyard in London, was in advanced stages, Burke said. Fabrication already has begun in Germany for the complicated network of steel members supporting each panel of glass, and design of the individual glass panels is well underway. All such work will stop, Burke said, while the Smithsonian considers alternatives.
Yesterday's resolution did contain a sentence that may allow the Smithsonian a bit of wiggle room. The commission action "does not preclude . . . a revised design for enclosing the courtyard." But the resolution also instructs the Smithsonian to "reconstruct the courtyard in a manner that will rehabilitate its prior design character and setting in relation to the building," including restoration of the two cast iron fountains removed when the site was leveled. Yesterday's ruling also requires the Smithsonian to rebuild a monumental staircase on the F Street facade that was removed in the 1930s.
The Patent Office Building took a long time to build and embodies the design efforts of three of Washington's best architects of the 19th century. Construction began in 1836 and continued in fits and starts until 1867. Mills was replaced in 1851 by his bitter rival, Thomas U. Walter, best known perhaps as the designer of the Capitol dome. After a fire in 1877, Adolf Cluss, architect of the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building, redesigned several of the large interior spaces -- making the interior a veritable record of changes in architectural taste and technology in mid-19th-century America.
Through much of the 20th century, the building suffered indignities at the hands of various federal bureaucracies. During the 1950s there was a serious proposal to tear it down for a parking lot. Instead, the building was turned over to the Smithsonian in the 1960s. Its closure five years ago was prompted by a need to completely rebuild its heating, ventilating and air conditioning infrastructure.