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National art in a new light

The renovation of twin Smithsonian museums lets sun shine in and reveals all kinds of hidden treasures.

July 02, 2006|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

Washington — THE light is what a visitor notices first, streaming into the corridors and showplaces of the landmark Greek Revival building that houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, reopening this weekend -- just in time for Independence Day -- after a six-year, $283-million renovation.

The effect of uncovering 550 windows and two city-block-long skylights in what was once the U.S. Patent Office is nothing short of exhilarating, training a fitting spotlight on the nation's collection of American art and portraiture. It is also historic, rescuing the original architect's 19th century intention of a grand and open space from a 20th century preoccupation with a darker, more interior modernity.

"The concept is really back to the future," says Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery, best known for Gilbert Stuart's "Lansdowne" portrait of George Washington but with a permanent collection of nearly 20,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and photographs, many of them contemporary. "The mid-20th century restoration made the building feel less like itself." But now, working with detailed historical documents, he says, preservationists "have rediscovered the building's innate genius."

That genius, says Smithsonian American Art Museum Director Elizabeth Broun, is in how the newly integrated museums honor their tradition -- inventors seeking patents -- by reinventing the experience of looking at art. "This building was always a place for what's new," she said as she escorted a reporter through SAAM's side of the building, which showcases more than 41,000 artworks in all media spanning more than three centuries. "Part of what we wanted to do during the renovation is to think about the future."

First came repairing the bones of the building, designed in 1836 by Robert Mills and amended by rival Thomas Walter. Led by the Washington firm of Hartman-Cox Architects, designers replaced the 550 windows with laminated glass that allows the light in while filtering it to protect the art. They restored marble floor pavers and replaced worn encaustic tiles in the Great Hall with historically accurate replicas produced in England. They put in new electrical and plumbing systems, fire protection and a copper roof. And they created a new, and newly shared, joint entrance for the Portrait Gallery and SAAM, the first federal art museum in the nation's history, predating the Smithsonian Institution. They built a 346-seat auditorium, for lectures, films and performances -- with a state-of-the-art sound system and a concert grand piano.

Then they got really creative. The result is two innovations that are creating buzz.

The first is the 10,000-square-foot Lunder Conservation Center, the first conservation facility in the United States allowing the public to see, through floor-to-ceiling glass walls, the work of examining, treating and preserving art. Conservators -- who have the option of closing the windows when concentration requires -- will work side by side, one from each museum in each of the labs.

The museums asked designer Isaac Mizrahi to create aprons for the conservationists, the denim design another subtle Americanism for museums dedicated to art in America.

The second innovation is the Luce Foundation Center for American Art, the first visible art storage and study center in Washington, allowing visitors to see 3,500 objects on display in 64 secure glass cases -- a voluminous increase from the 900 objects available for viewing in the old space.

"At the most fundamental level, we are allowing people to see resources they hold in common," says Broun. "At a more sophisticated level, it lets people see the choices we make."

The excitement over the Luce and Lunder "is enormous," says Claire Larkin, SAAM's special projects director, who consulted with more than 35 experts to refine the concept and generate program ideas. "We've inherited a beautiful space. Now we're inviting the public behind the scenes."

"The whole spirit of this reopening is a populist one," says Pachter. "In those five labs ... we will make available to everyone what used to be VIP access."

The U.S. government paid $166 million toward the renovation, with private donors picking up the balance. Part of the bargain restorers made with lawmakers is that all of the building, which spans a two-block area from 7th and 9th streets Northwest and from F and G streets Northwest, be used for the public -- so administrative offices moved across the street.

"Our promise to the government was that if they gave us the money, we would make sure all the space was open to the public," says Broun, adding that she hoped the conservation labs would become a magnet for scholars and schoolchildren.


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