Marc Fisher's commentary on the Patent Office Building ["Panels' Thoughts on Design Belong in a Museum," Metro, June 7] demonstrated the same disregard for America's treasured national historic landmarks that existed in the mid-20th century, when the rage was to replace all that was historic with things that looked "modern." The National Capital Planning Commission disapproved the Smithsonian Institution's plans to erect a glass canopy over the courtyard of the Patent Office Building to ensure that changes affecting the historic integrity of the Patent Office were undertaken carefully. Our judgment is shared by the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the secretary of the interior and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We informed the Smithsonian it could return with a revised proposal.
Contrary to Mr. Fisher's description of a "dank old" building with an "unpleasant, depressing courtyard," the Patent Office is an architectural gem designed by architect Robert Mills, the first American-born and American-trained architect. Mills also designed the Washington Monument, the Tariff Commission Building and the U.S. Treasury building.
Norman Foster, hired by the Smithsonian to design the canopy, did design a glass canopy for the British Museum that has won rave reviews. But that canopy in London is not visible from the street. The canopy proposed for the Patent Office would be lighted from within and, in the words of the architect, would look like "a magic carpet" floating above the building. We hope that Mr. Foster's designers will find a way to conceal the glass roof as they did at the British Museum.
Our commission welcomes new and exciting architecture, such as the future home of the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue. We also honor our duty and our role as a steward of Washington's icons and historic architecture. We do not believe that new and exciting has to come at the expense of iconic and historic.
We appreciate the Smithsonian's desire to reinvigorate this important structure, and we look forward to a revised design that accomplishes this worthy goal while preserving our important heritage.
JOHN V. COGBILL III
National Capital Planning Commission
At stake in the review of the glass canopy proposed for the courtyard of the Patent Office Building is the balance between the protection of a unique architectural landmark and its evolution within its social and urban context. Everyone in the review process agrees that this building must be treated with the utmost care; the disagreement lies in whether the loss of the old exterior court and the addition of a new glass canopy on slender steel columns proposed by Norman Foster are appropriate under standards for historic preservation. While some may find these preservation review procedures an obstacle to good design, this process has saved historic buildings that might have otherwise been lost to the wrecking ball.
The Commission of Fine Arts is a design review agency that by its mission takes the broadest view of architecture, art, historic resources and urban design. It does not comment specifically on historic preservation matters but rather on the quality of design in general. Thus, last July the Commission of Fine Arts reviewed the proposed glass canopy for the courtyard at the Old Patent Office and approved the design unanimously, noting the "light touch with which the historic structure is treated with respect to the contemporary addition."
Again in February, the commission reviewed a final design proposal and endorsed it while asking for development of some aspects of the design, such as the color of the glass and the appearance of the mechanical equipment. At the National Capital Planning Commission meeting on June 2, the chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, Earl A. Powell III, testified in support of the proposed glass enclosure.
The review process for public projects in Washington is not controlled by a monolith of federal agencies with a single point of view. As evidenced by the Commission of Fine Arts' strong support of the Foster design, there is room for debate and disagreement -- particularly on sensitive issues such as the future of the old Patent Office Building.
U. S. Commission of Fine Arts