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Museums Reopen to a Brand-New View

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.

An energetic visitor could see about 5,000 works when the building reopens today. By comparison, the National Gallery of Art, the city's most famous art museum, has 2,973 on display.

Throughout the building, 588 windows have been replaced and outfitted with special filters to let light enhance the art but not damage it.

The museums have added a 346-seat auditorium. At American Art, the staff has installed open storage galleries -- a series of glass cases and drawers jammed with thousands of works from the museum's considerable overflow, works that would otherwise be in the museum's Maryland warehouse.

There's also an important change at the Portrait Gallery. It will continue to focus on pictures of "significant" Americans, but the rules about who qualifies have changed. "No longer will the person have to be dead enough, no longer 10 years," says Director Marc Pachter. In fact, subjects need not be dead at all. So there are pictures of Tom Wolfe and Hillary Clinton in addition to Babe Ruth and Marilyn Monroe.

And the building has a new name: the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture. The name comes from the late media entrepreneur Donald Worthington Reynolds; the foundation he established in Las Vegas gave $75 million to the project.

* * *

The journey to today's block party was not easy. Delays, infighting and stagnant fundraising plagued the project.

Originally, the museums were thinking small. Replace the wiring. Add new windows. Upgrade plumbing. Fix the roof. Steam-clean the columns.

When Lawrence Small took over in 2000 as head of the Smithsonian, he took a personal interest in the historic structure. He wanted a top-to-bottom rehabilitation. The result reshaped much of the interior. There will be 20 percent more gallery space. American Art will have 90,000 square feet and the Portrait Gallery 60,000 square feet.

The configuration also represents a peace accord between the two museums. They were separate and unequal before, and they squabbled publicly before the closing over one plan that had the Portrait Gallery restricted to the first floor and occupying only one-third of the space. Eventually, the real estate was divided according to what art fit best on each floor, the directors have explained amicably. For example, the third floor, with the highest ceilings, got the contemporary American art, which tends toward large canvases.

The layout is practical, says Pachter.

The building is a vast rectangle, covering two city blocks, and sorting through the galleries will be something akin to memorizing the aisles in a Wal-Mart.

One huge piece of the transformation is not in place. A glass canopy over the fortresslike building's 28,000-square-foot interior courtyard will not be ready until late 2007. British architect Norman Foster, who created London's famous "Gherkin" office tower and the glass dome atop Berlin's Reichstag, designed the glass roof of interconnected vaults.

The Smithsonian commissioned Foster late in the game -- in 2004. The idea was to convert the courtyard into an all-weather setting for events. And officials hope the covering, lit softly and peering into Washington's night, will be a landmark itself. The plan ran into an unexpected roadblock. The National Capital Planning Commission, which had to approve the final design, twice gave preliminary approvals but last year rejected Foster's concept, complaining it was too high. Then, three months later, the commission reversed its ruling after the museum agreed to use different glass and redirect interior lights so the roof would not look like a beacon.

The delay cost the Smithsonian $10 million and raised the total cost of the courtyard and enclosure to $112 million. About 20 percent of the steel girders for the canopy are in place.

* * *

The Patent Office Building was authorized in 1836 by Andrew Jackson. Displays of patent models were the main attraction. By 1857, it had 100,000 visitors a year.

Clara Barton was hired as a Patent Office clerk in 1854 and was the first female government employee to receive the same pay as a man. During the Civil War, Walt Whitman worked as a nurse in the building when it was used as a temporary infirmary.

In 1955, the building was about to be torn down for a parking garage, but President Dwight D. Eisenhower saved it from the wrecking ball. The Smithsonian was given the landmark by Congress in 1958.

The museums opened in 1968 and attracted a steady stream of visitors, though the attendance in the years before they closed, 400,000 to 500,000 people a year, is a trickle compared with the National Air and Space Museum visits of several million.

The directors hope the changes they've made, and the revitalized neighborhood, will change that.

The Smithsonian is spending $298 million. Congress contributed $166 million. The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation's $75 million contribution supported the renovation and the purchase of the Stuart "Lansdowne" from its British owner, as well as special placement of the portrait.

The cost of the original building: $2.3 million.

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