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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)

Although he was to spend much of his life claiming credit, Elliott had no hand in building the structure. The grace and variety of its interiors are due to three extremely talented and vastly more experienced architects: Robert Mills, Thomas U. Walter and, after a disastrous fire in 1877, Adolph Cluss.

That is quite a trio. Mills was the designer of the Treasury Department Building and the Old Post Office (now the Hotel Monaco), and it was his idea to use an Egyptian form -- the obelisk -- as the Capitol's monumental tribute to George Washington. Walter, of course, was the designer of the Capitol's stupendous dome. And to Cluss we owe the Arts and Industries Building on the Mall, Franklin School, Sumner School, Eastern Market and numerous other distinguished, if long gone, Washington structures.

Mills and Walter fought incessant battles in Congress and the press over the Patent Office, and Walter finally replaced his rival in 1851. Despite their enmity, Mills and Walter did excellent work inside the building. Ironically, however, much of Walters's work in the west and north wings was destroyed in the fire -- the irony lying in the fact that he had argued long and loudly that Mill's structural system of groined masonry vaults was dangerously susceptible to fire. Mills's vaults, however, withstood the conflagration -- last words from beyond the grave. (Mills died in 1855, Walter not until 1887.)

Thus the splendid spaces we appreciate today are primarily due to Mills and Cluss. Mills had a fine sense of proportion, as we see in the graceful curves of his cantilevered double stairwell in the south wing's main lobby. His structural system not only produced great spaces such as the east wing's Lincoln Gallery but also allowed for the large number of big, handsome windows that remains one of the building's chief glories.

Cluss represents a dramatic change of pace. His engineering was sound, but he also believed in color and craft and sensuous decoration. In a sense, he hid his engineering -- except in certain places, such as the wonderful skylights in the high ceiling of his tiered galleries in the west wing. When entering a Cluss space from a Mills, you move from the sobriety of the early republic to the exuberance of Victorian taste. But not, I hasten to add, the sort of indulgence that gives much Victorian architecture a bad name. Cluss kept things under control, sometimes enchantingly so.

Renovating this old masonry building with its diverse and beautiful spaces was a huge challenge. Or rather, hundreds of little challenges, each of which had to be solved with ingenuity and skill. Let it be said, then, that Mary Kay Lanzillotta and her colleagues at Washington's Hartman-Cox Architects, along with Sheryl L. Kolasinski and her Smithsonian design team and George Sexton as lighting consultant, were fully up to the tasks.

The sound overall strategy was governed by two ideas: to respect the historic interiors as much as possible while updating all their systems (heating, cooling, electronics, plumbing and the rest); and to open up the building, both to natural light and easy pedestrian movement.

The many other achievements included hiding most of that infrastructure behind the original walls or under the historic floors, and adding a sleek 346-seat auditorium underground. But a particularly key accomplishment was that the renovation architects uncovered almost all of the building's 588 windows. New glass technology helped: The replacement panels are laminated and coated with invisible filters to shield artworks from harmful ultraviolet rays. And translucent scrims were added in many places.

By such measures did the architects turn an art museum no-no into a fantastic advantage. The natural light gives the museum a rare, soft luminescence, and the ability to rest one's eyes for a moment by looking out to the city streets adds a lot to a visitor's experience. Many folks, I suspect, will return to this museum again and again for the sheer pleasure that its light and architecture provide.

Which is as it should be -- works of art displayed in a work of art.

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