Museums Reborn: Patently Inspiring

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.

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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