Patent Verdict: 'Awesome'

Visitors view works by Marc Dennis, left, and James Seward on the crowded opening day of the Old Patent Office Building.
Visitors view works by Marc Dennis, left, and James Seward on the crowded opening day of the Old Patent Office Building. (Photos By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Adriane Quinlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 2, 2006

For the simple rural couple from "American Gothic," standing on the second-floor balcony above F Street NW, it was quite a sight. What a commotion.

Thousands swarmed the reopening of the Old Patent Office Building yesterday to see what 6 1/2 years of remodeling had wrought. The newly outfitted Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture combines the Smithsonian's American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, which together offer more than 5,000 artworks over three floors.

For yesterday's grand opening, artists gave live demonstrations, bands played bluegrass and sang barbershop harmonies, dancers pranced next to the ballroom where Lincoln once danced, and actors reenacted some of the historical American figures whose painted faces decorate the walls.

Which is where "American Gothic" came in.

On their balcony perch, halfway between Eighth and Ninth streets, Michael Gabel of Cheverly wore owlish wire-rimmed glasses and held a pitchfork, alongside a stoic Lisa Demery, in gingham apron.

When the American Originals Fife and Drum Corps stood on the red-carpeted steps to play "It's a Grand Old Flag," the homespun couple swayed to the music. "We like to rock out to the tunes," Gabel said. "If our faces stay deadpan, we can get away with just about anything."

From 11:30 a.m. until 6 p.m., reenactors strode through the gallery spaces to their own portraits and offered historical background to curious visitors.

Across the street in front of Poste restaurant, Connor Ireland, a cook, pulled paper sticks through a cotton candy whirler and gave them out free to the crowd. "I thought this was a construction museum for so long," he joked.

When Elizabeth Broun and Marc Pachter, directors of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, respectively, finally snipped through that red velour ribbon, Ireland couldn't see -- the crowd was too big. Most in the crowd walked quickly through the museum to its G Street side, where they had heard there was free ice cream.

A line snaked from a row of vendors in candy-striped uniforms and straw hats; they had been ordered not to serve until noon. When the clock struck 12, it was a madhouse. And once the crowds had inhaled their Klondike bars and thrown the wrappers on the street -- where were the trash cans? -- they moved into the cool and beautifully remodeled building.

Anacostia resident Brian Martin was stopped by the very first portrait, at one side of the entrance: soprano Denyce Graves, her dress aflame, her skin aglow. "We went to the same high school," Martin explained. "Duke Ellington."

Martin is a Civil War reenactor and artist who has studied painting under Simmie Knox, painter of Bill Clinton's official White House portrait. Martin's wife, Greta, liked the Hall of Presidents upstairs. Lorraine Marshall, visiting from Kuwait, agreed. "My favorites are the first ladies," she said. "They're so cool."

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