"Peoplethink of going underground as going down to Hell, down to the toilets, down to the tomb," said Jean Paul Carlhian, explaining the difficulties he faced in designing the Smithsonian's new $73.2 million Quadrangle complex.
This weekend thousands of people learned instead to go underground at the Quadrangle to buried treasures, to an Ali Baba's cave of the rare, the beautiful, the ancient and the profound.
The three days of festivities celebrated the opening of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian Art. Several thousand came -- scholars, museum professionals and volunteers (from Washington and all over the world), chemical company officials, artists (performing and visual), legislators and friends and family of Arthur M. Sackler, founder of the feast. Among them: Princess Michael of Kent, author Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, collector and philanthropist Joanne du Pont, scientist Linus Pauling, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Senate Iran-contra committee counsel Arthur Liman.
They came to look, talk, listen, lunch, dine, drink and dodge the torrents of rain and to bathe in the emotional reminiscences about Sackler, billionaire philanthropist, philosopher, scholar. Sackler gave a thousand objects and $4 million toward the Asian art gallery.
As a Washington first, Jill Sackler and Smithsonian Secretary Robert McC. Adams decided against receiving lines at the seminar, the concert, the two dinners (each for 280), the two receptions (each for 680) or the Festscrift during the three days.
"They thought it was pleasanter not to have a formal line, but to have more chance to move through the events and talk to people," said Ralph Rinzler, Smithsonian assistant secretary.
In many ways, this weekend's events were a great public kaddish, a memorial, for Sackler, who died May 26 at 73, a philanthropic Moses at the border of his Promised Land. For Jill Sackler, his widow, the days and nights were bittersweet.
"Arthur and I had planned all of this for two years," she said. "We had talked about who we'd have and how the seminars and the parties would go. It might sound strange to those who didn't know him, but at 72 he was in the prime of his life. Everything was going so well. I thought he led a charmed life and these would be the best years. He was so dynamic, so full of the future. He had so many projects not yet finished. I'm an upbeat person. I love parties. These are my characteristics which appealed to him. But it's hard without him."
At the opening dinner in the concourse, or "street," of the Ripley Center, guests found tears in their eyes to match those in hers, as she spoke of her husband and thanked those who had helped the center. Ruth Adams, whose position as director of the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation's project on peace and international cooperation keeps her from making many Washington parties, said she found Jill Sackler's ad-lib speech "marvelous." Adams added her husband Robert made "a good speech too."
Korean Ambassador Kyong Won Kim, at the same after-dinner speeches, brought laughter instead. He said he knew why he was invited -- Korea and Japan each gave a million dollars to the project. But he complained (correctly) that in all the Sackler collection of Near and Far Asian art, not an object is from Korea. "So I have decided that as the only Korean object on display here tonight, it is more proper for me to be visual than verbal."
"I told the ambassador we hope to have great loan exhibitions from Korea," said Thomas Lawton, director of the Center for Asian Art, including both the old Freer and the new Sackler galleries, after the dinner, as he welcomed guests in the gallery of silver objects. "Sackler's concern was answering the question, 'When did man first have esthetic consciousness?' so he collected in China and the Near East."
Arthur F. Sackler, the son of the donor, stopped Kyong on the great stairs and said, "See, the Sacklers do collect the best of Korea," pulled out his billfold and showed him his new adopted daughter, an 8-month-old Korean child. "And we have a 3-month-old Chinese daughter," he added.
Lawton had claimed earlier that his calm was entirely due to Valium, but said Friday night, "I was trying to be funny. Actually, to relax, I walk my aging sheltie dog. We were all trying so hard, because Arthur Sackler made such an impression on us. We wanted the gallery to be as fine as his gift. Though it's one collection, there's not a sameness to it. The spaces are all different, high and low ceilings, small and large rooms."
Milo Beach, the assistant Sackler director, said he was ready "to put my feet up ... It's been an intense journey to this point. Now we need to see how it all works, if we have the right density of objects, how the traffic goes. So far, we're very pleased."
Others at the opening dinner represented a cross section of interests.
S. Dillon Ripley, Smithsonian secretary emeritus, and his wife Mary came in from Paddling Ponds, their place in Litchfield, Conn., just for the occasion, and left quickly after the dinner. The Quadrangle project was planned, funded and designed during Ripley's tenure.
Later in the evening, Charles Blitzer, now director of the National Humanities Center in North Carolina, spoke about "that rainy day when Dillon and I went to see Arthur Sackler and he said he'd give us the collection."
Daniel Boorstin, who becomes emeritus librarian of Congress today, said even out of office he's arranged to have "the grandest carrel in the library -- my own study, close to the books." Boorstin's newest book, "Hidden History," comes out in October. His wife, editor Ruth Boorstin (their joint children's book, "The Landmark History of the American People," will be reissued this month), said she remembered meeting Sackler in the Smithsonian zoo reptile house. "We could hardly believe he had done such a variety of things as he talked about. And then we found he had done all of that and more."
At the reception Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, who with her spectacular looks and international connections has cut a wide swath through Washington society, said, "Michael and I are moving back to Los Angeles, though first we'll spend some time in Houston, where his company headquarters are." She was glad, she said, that she finished writing her new book on Picasso three weeks ago.
The most intimate of the gatherings was the buffet Jill Sackler gave for family and friends at the Kennedy Center atrium, following the concert for about 2,000.
Princess Michael of Kent said, "I came because I loved him. He was a good friend. I promised him I would come. But I hoped to slip in incognito."
Steve Martindale, a Washington socialite, was also there, saying he was "an old friend of the Sacklers," and explaining, "Arthur Sackler was universal." Linda Faulkner, the White House social secretary, came in to the dinner overwhelmed by the concert performed by musician friends of Sackler's. The artists, said Marta Istomin, Kennedy Center artistic director, "played not just with talent and technique, but love."
Wilton Dillon, who planned the seminars, and his wife Virginia may have held the record (after Adams and Jill Sackler) on attending the events, but close behind him were Smithsonian assistant secretary Tom Freudenheim and his wife Leslie, an architectural historian, and Ralph Rinzler, who cheerfully attended all, spoke to all and enjoyed all.
The women's costumes and jewelry at the black-tie dinners and receptions were appropriately opulent, often Oriental or Near Eastern, and occasionally casual. For her dinner Jill Sackler wore a black and purple full-skirted silk dress embroidered in butterflies, and a gold-framed alabaster butterfly pendant.
"I worried about wearing it, because I think of butterflies as signifying happiness, but I was told it signifies regeneration, so that's appropriate," she said. Akyong Kim, wife of the Korean ambassador, wore a yellow gauzy traditional gown, with a lacquered locket she said was designed for perfume. Arnaz Marker, wife of the Pakistani ambassador, wore a pale green brocade from their country. And Elizabeth Ettinghausen, a Textile Museum director, had on a great Near Eastern robe.
On Sunday at the Festscrift, 26 learned and talented people honored Sackler's memory by speaking about their specialties. They included Robert Bagley, Princeton professor, on a bronze he likened to Winnie the Pooh's "heffalump," Douglas Lewis of the National Gallery on Renaissance bronzes, Jessica Rawson on cataloguing the collection and Jenny F. So on Chinese jade. "I had planned the Sunday Festscrift as a surprise for Arthur," said Jill Sackler. "I would have said, 'Let's go to a lecture,' and then he would have found all these artists and scholars presenting the best of their life's work to honor him."
And then she said, "You know, I just thought today -- with all he had to do, and he was 20 times busier than anyone else, he always met me when I'd been away, at the airport or the train station. And I don't know that I ever told him how much I appreciated that."
Other seminars and preview parties this week will open the other sections of the Quadrangle: the National Museum of African Art and the S. Dillon Ripley Center (the International and Education centers, Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service and the Smithsonian Associate Programs).