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A museum with a patented history

The National Portrait Gallery was born amid conflict over its 19th century design. Its 2006 reopening brings more of the same.

July 03, 2005|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

Washington — When the National Portrait Gallery reopens a year from now after a six-year, $216-million renovation, the new space will represent a triumph for preservationists, for artists, for historians -- and for Robert Mills.

Mills, the original architect, was taken off the project after a rival designer convinced Congress that Mills' 1836 plan for a fireproof building -- a major preoccupation for a city in which the British had burned the White House 22 years earlier -- would not work. Although Mills designed other landmark buildings in the nation's capital during the same period -- the Washington Monument, the Treasury Department and the original Post Office, now the Hotel Monaco -- he went home to South Carolina devastated that politicians had stripped him of the commission midway through construction for what was to be the U.S. Patent Office, the third-oldest federal building in Washington, after the White House and the Capitol.

Now restorers have painstakingly peeled away 170 years of history and found that Mills was right.

"Mills' basic insight into both the nature and shapes of the materials resulted in a simple but elegant solution," said Stephen di Girolamo, project director. "It was about the shapes of the vault, and the brick in the vault, and the granite, sandstone and marble in the supporting elements. All relatively fireproof compared to iron."

As a result of the political intervention, the museum in downtown Washington -- near the International Spy Museum and the MCI Center -- is a marriage of styles. The south side, the Mills wing, is Greek Revival in design and visionary in its understanding of technology. The rest, completed by his nemesis Thomas U. Walter, has the more basic look of a monumental block building.

Ironically, a 21st century attempt to bridge the wings with an undulating glass ceiling above the courtyard that separates them has run into politics, if different in nature than the politics that bifurcated the building in the first place.

The National Capital Planning Commission -- guardian of Washington's public space -- has rejected plans for a canopy by Sir Norman Foster, who designed a similar construct for the British Museum. Preservationists objected, arguing that the canopy's height would violate the character of the building. Disappointed officials at the Smithsonian Institution, which oversees the museum, said they hope a compromise design, to be completed in the next few months, will ease preservationists' fears and win approval from the commission.

In the meantime, the building is revealing its secrets to construction crews working to finish the project for its grand reopening on July 4, 2006, exactly 170 years after President Andrew Jackson laid the cornerstone for a building that opened in pieces -- the Mills wing in 1842, the rest in 1865.

On a recent day, Marc Pachter, the fourth director of the National Portrait Gallery and the only man in Smithsonian history to head two museums at once (he was acting director of the Smithsonian's Museum of American History for more than a year after the Sept. 11 terror attacks), donned hard hat and goggles to give The Times a walk-through. He wanted to share what he sees on walls now stripped of plaster and floors taken down to their foundation.

"We feel that the building is our greatest artifact," Pachter said. "Always keep in mind the concept of grandeur."

To demonstrate, he pointed out that each floor has a higher ceiling than the one below. On the first floor, the ceiling rises to 12.3 feet; on the second, 16.1 feet; and on the third the ceiling at times reaches 39 feet. Everywhere, vaults and arches and abundant light -- the building has 588 windows and 15,000 panes of glass -- give witness to the genius of Mills' design. And exposed columns show clearly the extra and unneeded columns that subsequent architects installed to buttress the original design. "The problem for Mills is that nobody believed in his principles," Pachter said. "They allowed him to build essentially one wing, and then they convinced Congress that his ideas were dangerous."

A graduate of UC Berkeley, Pachter walked through the building like a knowing parent, marveling at the evolution of its development.

Pierre L'Enfant, who designed Washington from a swamp, intended the site first for a cathedral, what Pachter called "a Greek temple in a mudflat." Ultimately, having put the legislators on Capitol Hill and the president three miles to the south at the White House, L'Enfant earmarked this space in between them as a pantheon to the heroes of the young republic, with porticoes modeled after the Parthenon in Athens. But Congress chafed at the notion of a tribute to religion or national pride, deciding in a burst of pragmatism to use the two-block site for the first U.S. Patent Office.

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