Museums Reborn: Patently Inspiring

An inviting bench lures the viewer to explore Albert Bierstadt's
An inviting bench lures the viewer to explore Albert Bierstadt's "Among the Sierra Nevada, California" at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. (Nikki Kahn - Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
By Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

My favorite early photograph of Washington shows the south wing of the Patent Office Building in 1846, four years after its completion, standing behind a ramshackle cluster of two- and three-story brick or clapboard structures. The sepia daguerreotype tells us much about the capital as mid-century approached: still a bit haphazard, still not quite a real city, but definitely advertising grand ambitions in the powerful Doric portico and grand stairwell of the new building.

The structure was far from finished, with three wings still to come (under the guidance at different times of two eminent, bitterly quarreling architects, it was not to attain its impressive final form until 1868). But filling two large city blocks -- bordered by Seventh, G, Ninth and F streets NW -- the Old Patent Office Building, home now to two Smithsonian museums, today retains its monumental dignity amid the big buildings of Washington's newly vibrant downtown.

So it is a pleasure to celebrate the reopening of the great building after six years of closed doors, behind which a $298 million makeover was occurring. Well, not so much a makeover as a make-again -- the renovation architects did a splendid job, bringing the building's diverse interior spaces back to their former glory while equipping them for life in the 21st century. (Originally a three-year fix-up was planned, but fund-raising issues and philosophical questions arose that contributed to the extended closure.)

It helped, of course, that most of the administrative offices of the two museums -- the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery -- were moved into an ordinary office building across Ninth Street. Doing so increased exhibition space by nearly 25 percent.

Equally as important, that move enabled architects to eliminate the dead ends and narrow passageways that used to hamper movement. Visitors now can circumnavigate the building on all three of its floors, a gratifying, at times exhilarating experience.

This is, after all, one of the city's architectural treasures. Arguably, it's the best public building in Washington -- serene, if maybe a bit dour on the outside, and on the inside a variegated treat.

Yes, of course, the Capitol -- with its majestic Rotunda and massive dome -- is always in the forefront of our minds and eyes. It is the city's undeniable crown.

But the Capitol is such an architectural palimpsest, with layer after layer of added stuff, that it's overwhelming and confusing, at once boastful and secretive. Its public spaces tell an official story, and its many elegant nooks and crannies, invisible to typical visitors, make up a nest of political and architectural hideaways.

And yes, there are other contenders. That wonderful National Gallery pairing of John Russell Pope's West Building and I.M. Pei's East Building comes immediately to mind. But Pope's late-neoclassical temple is maybe just a bit too correct, and Pei's triangular masterpiece a bit too lacking in great spaces for art. (Of course this kind of argument is fun but pointless. The Old Patent Office Building is great, whether you place it at or just near the top of your Washington list.)

The Patent Office Building was conceived as a magnificent public display case for American innovation, housing thousands of patent models. If the genius of our national culture for its first century or so was transfiguring the forms of aristocratic Europe to new, democratic ends, then this building surely is a supreme example. Not idly was it referred to, in its early decades, as the "temple of invention."

(In "Temple of Invention," his excellent new primer on the building's history that was published for the reopening, Charles J. Robertson reminds us that the Patent Office also was referred to as the "museum of curiosities." During the 1840s and '50s, in particular, its spaces attracted all manner of artifacts, from George Washington's sword to "Peruvian mummies to a mosaic from Pompeii to a piece of Plymouth Rock.")

The building's sober Greek revival exterior was conceived by New York architect Alexander J. Davis, who based his initial drawings on the Parthenon. This idea was then adapted by Washington's Charles P. Elliott into a four-winged, rectangular structure framing a central courtyard.

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