Museums Reopen to a Brand-New View

A worker prepares for today's opening festivities at the newly renovated home of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.
A worker prepares for today's opening festivities at the newly renovated home of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 1, 2006

Today, after 6 1/2 years of hibernation, the ornate marble and sandstone hulk known as the Old Patent Office Building comes to life.

Inside the halls of this rectangular fortress, visitors will find two of the great places to meditate on the American experience -- the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Both Smithsonian museums have been transformed. But in the years that the galleries have been dark, another transformation has taken place. The scruffy streets and empty storefronts that surrounded Washington's third-oldest federal building have metamorphosed into one of the city's trendiest neighborhoods.

"It was so desolate," says Jo-Ann Neuhaus, executive director of the Pennsylvania Quarter Neighborhood Association. Interspersed with the vacant buildings were some city favorites: D.C. Space nightclub, the Music Box Center, Central Liquor. But mostly, says Neuhaus, "it wasn't a bad area, but it was a nondescript area that no one had an interest in going to. . . . It looked tawdry."

After MCI Center (now known as Verizon Center) opened in December 1997, the popularity of Penn Quarter has been an urban steamroller. Since the museums closed, thousands of apartments have been built. A 50,000-square-foot housewares store opened. New theaters and galleries arrived. The privately owned International Spy Museum opened across the street. The number of restaurants around the museums roughly doubled.

In 2005, 6.2 million people came to events downtown, an increase of 10 percent over the previous year, according to the Downtown Business Improvement District. Now the museums in the Old Patent Office Building will add to that momentum.

Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, remembers what it was like in 2000. "We were locked inside our own closet before," she says. "Now . . . you have a view of this amazingly transformed neighborhood -- something all the federal money couldn't have done for us through the museum."

The museums are hoping to tap the area's thriving nightlife by staying open till 7:30. (Other Smithsonian museums typically close at 5:30.)

Inside the building at Eighth and F streets NW, there's an entirely new layout. Warrens of offices are gone, replaced with more exhibition space.

Visitors also will find the lines between the museums somewhat blurred. Before they were shuttered, each museum occupied one side of the building. That's changed. Now, for example, American Art has the west galleries on first floor, but the Portrait Gallery has that side on the second floor.

Their missions are still separate. The Portrait Gallery focuses on the nation's most important figures, American Art on its most creative visual artists.

Visitors can see Gilbert Stuart's majestic "Lansdowne" portrait of George Washington. Here, too, they can reflect on folk artist James Hampton's unearthly aluminum-foil vision: "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly." Upstairs is the vaulted hall where Abraham Lincoln had his second inaugural ball. Downstairs is a portrait of Shaquille O'Neal.

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