Patent Verdict: 'Awesome'
A New Old Museum Shows How Well It Can Draw

By Adriane Quinlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 2, 2006; D01

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."

In front of Gilbert Stuart's famed oil of our first president, arm extended, sat "George Washington" himself, hands in his pockets. He had just come from his estate at Mount Vernon with his wife, Martha, who suggested that the portrait makes her husband "look rather grim." Washington, whose real name is William Sommerfield and who is the "official impersonator of George Washington," looked a bit peeved by that comment. "The presidency has been hard on her," he noted.

"Harriet Tubman" stood by a tiny photograph of Harriet Tubman. She smiled and nodded and carried a Gucci purse under her dark robes and shook the hand of Chris Noth of "Sex and the City," who is not an official historic figure just yet. Tubman, speaking through Angelica Huesca, a Baltimore actress, said her favorite portraits were of Madonna and Michael Jackson.

"Andy Warhol" was hiding. He was "shy," he explained, before asking Robin Richard, who had just come from Eastern Market, if he could film her for eight minutes. She said okay, but then he excused himself: "I have to go look for some soup cans." His "pseudonym" was Anthony Chavez, and he was really from Baltimore, and he pronounced the Old Patent Office Building totally "awesome."

Warhol might have been intrigued to see the spread of Polaroids at Pete and Alison Duval's table, where the Silver Spring couple gave a demonstration of the photographic emulsion transfer process -- but it was blocked by hordes of curious visitors. The Duvals are freelance photographers who usually compete with the press photographers who yesterday were snapping their picture.

Inside the museum, their big competition was the larger-than-life Mr. Imagination, who in the next room wore a cummerbund, hat and coat all sewn with bottle caps. He showed the gaggle of little girls who watched him, mouths agape, how to make necklaces of bottle caps and colored feathers.

Arlington residents Joe and Mikel Witte said they were looking forward most to "a famous twig sculptor": Lucious Webb, who in the Luce Center was making what looked like a tiny boat out of twigs he had collected.

Mandy and Willa Trifiatis came from Falls Church and lingered at the glass windows of the conservation lab, where they saw conservator Martin Kotler clean the back of a huge gilt frame (which had once held a watercolor of polar bears) in order to look for the signature of the frame-maker.

In the hall outside the Luce Center, Pachter, the Portrait Gallery director, beamed as he took the arm of "Marilyn Monroe," her white dress fluttering, and posed for a photograph to mark the occasion. As the two stood for their very own portrait, the faces in the neighboring "20th Century Americans" gallery stared them down.

Speaking of the difficulty of curating such a collection -- and of choosing just the right figures to bring back to life -- Pachter said, "The question is, whom do we notice in our society?"

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