Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
"Feel that texture." Daniel Boorstin ran his hand sensuously over the slightly uneven marble of 19th-century pillar. "It's just perfect," said the librarian of Congress, who knows good marble when he strokes.
He was standing in the Lincoln Gallery of the National Collection of Fine Arts, where Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural reception - a room that runs the full length of a city block, dazzlingly white with its high arches faced in marble.
Along with 81 other distingusihed guests at a black-tie dinner and cocktail reception Monday night, Boorstin was rejoicing that this space now houses American Paintings rather than automobiles.
"It might be a parking lot today," remarked S. Dillon Ripley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. "I suppose there are some people who wish it were."
Joshua C. Taylor, director of the National Collection, overheard the remark and threw a quick, playful punch at his boss, stopping comfortably short of the target. Evidently, he was not one of those imagined creatures who would prefer a parking lot, nor indeed could any be found in all the two city blocks the National Collection occuppies down in the neighborhood of 8th and G Streets NW.
This week marks the 10th anniversary of the National Collection's settling into the handsome Greek Revival building (among the oldest government buildings in this style that make parts of Washington look something like ancient Athens). On May 6, 1968, the building that had formerly housed the Patent Office became a functioning part of the Smithsonian complex, devoted primarily to American art and associated building that is as much a work of art as any of its contents.
"This room was all divided up into little cubicles for Patent Office employes," someone from the National Collection was telling Boorstin, a hint of horror in her voice. "The walls and pillars were covered with layer upon layer of government'green paint. We stripped it all off and found this marble."
"Better than stripping it off and finding plaster," said Boorstin, giving one of the room's 32 pillars another affectionate pat.
"It's a beautiful building. I wish I'd designed it myself," said Wasdron Faulkner, the architect who renovated the building and adapted it for its present use. "A remarkable building you know; Clara Barton set up a hospital in it during the Civil War. it was one of the first buildings in Washington designed to be fire-resistant: Those are brick arches under the marble. Some of the newer wings were built with iron arches, and when a fire broke out those wings caved in but the brick arches stayed up. It was almost a demonstration case: People learned that you have to treat iron to make it resist fire."
When he began redesigning the building, Faulkner recalled, there were stoves and fireplaces everywhere, with chimneys running all through the walls. Nobody knew how they could put in central heating and air conditioning without slopping duct work all over the walls and ruining the building's lines. Then they thought of running the ducts through the old chimneys and it worked fine.
The result of the renovations is one of downtown Washington's most notable structures. "I love to come here," said Mrs. Livingston Biddle. "Such a beautiful building, and such brilliant exhibitions." Livingston Biddle, something of a connoisseur of old buildings, confided that the National Endowment for the Arts, of which he is the chairman, is examining the possibility of moving into the old post Office Building.