MICHELE NORRIS host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
One of the oldest buildings in the nation's capital is nearing the end of a $300 million renovation. The original Patent Office is considered one of the best examples of Greek revival architecture in the country. It now houses two Smithsonian museums, the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum. Museum officials are hoping that the building itself will be as big an attraction as the exhibits.
NPR's Lynn Neary got a tour of the renovation. It's still a work in progress.
LYNN NEARY reporting:
The Patent Office was a pivotal part of President Andrew Jackson's plan to turn Washington into a great world capital. Jackson enlisted Robert Mils, the original architect of the Washington Monument, to design three neo-Greek buildings that would symbolize the sprit of the American people.
The Patent Office building was one of them. Now home to the two museums, it take up two square city blocks. Each of its four wings is adorned with a majestic portico. Marc Pachter, director of the National Portrait Gallery, says the building was meant to look like a temple.
MARC PACHTER (National Portrait Gallery): It was the temple of the American spirit, temple of the useful arts. The word temple was actually used in those days.
NEARY: Closed to the public for the last six years, the two museums are only partially finished, with much of the space still a construction site.
(Soundbite of construction noises)
The building has gone through many changes over the years. Several architects contributed to the final design. Parts of it were rebuilt after being damaged by a fire in 1877. In the 1950s it was slated for demolition to make way for a parking lot. After a successful campaign to save it, the building was renovated and transformed into a museum space. Windows were covered up in order to protect the artwork from light. Large sections of the building were turned into offices and closed to the public. The two museums had separate entrances and it was impossible to move easily from one to the other.
American Art Museum director Elizabeth Broun says all this altered the nature of the original design.
Ms. ELIZABETH BROUN (American Art Museum): This was one of the most elegantly designed buildings from the perspective of circulation of people and circulation of light. We didn't really know that until we started pulling out all the accretions of the decades. We really felt we were liberating the building when we realized what was happening.
NEARY: Broun says Mills used pillars and vaulted ceilings instead of massive load bearing walls to create an airy, light-filled space. To avoid taking up too much of the lobby space in the south wing, he designed a semi-circular staircase set beneath a vaulted archway.
Ms. BROUN: He was designing at a time there was no electric light, no gas light, not even kerosene. So he only had whale oil lamps and candles. So for him, natural light and allowing the natural light to permeate the space was critical and in order to do that he started using these vaults. They'd never done in America. He got them from pattern books. He was criticized by people who said they're gonna fall down, you don't know what you're doing. These are untried and untested and, in fact, there were, we hear, individual Congressman would come through and say put another pillar there, that needs more support.
NEARY: Just behind the staircase, a door leads into a massive open-air courtyard surrounded by the four wings of the building.
Ms. BROUN: Okay, we're gonna walk straight through the courtyard, you'll be able to see they're constructing, putting in place the large columns.
NEARY: Perhaps the most audacious part of the renovation is the plan to enclose this courtyard with a glass ceiling.
Ms. BROUN: It's a glass and steel structure, it's almost like a coffered ceiling with steel coffers and glass in between, it's very elegant and it ripples.
NEARY: About two city blocks long, the ceiling will be held up by eight steel pillars that are being installed along the walls of the building's four wings. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Norman Foster, this transparent canopy that looks like waves of glass and steel has an ethereal feel that will allow light in, but keep nature out.
Ms. BROUN: We're gonna go up and stand and look in the Great Hall.
NEARY: The Great Hall on the third floor is two stories high. Four galleries off the center hallway will display a permanent collection of contemporary portraits.
The hall itself is a masterpiece of interior design. Lit by skylights, it is filled with ornate details that have been lovingly restored.
Ms. BROUN: We have real marble, faux marble, scaglioa columns. We have bronze and brass railings. We have etched glass. If you could go into the center, there's a lot of stained glass in the cupola above and above all of the windows in the central lobby area. The colorful floor. It's a riot of color and decorative effects beyond breathtaking. Never looked better.
Now we're going into the Luce Foundation Center for American Arts.
NEARY: The renovation of the Luce Center, once the museum library, is almost complete. Here, museum-goers will have the opportunity to see artwork that until now has been in storage, viewable only by appointment. Tucked in alcoves on the mezzanine level, visitors will find row after row of glass cases filled with a fantastic jumble of art treasures, everything from a magnificent Ruben's Madonna to folk art.
Ms. BROUN: We have sections for 19th century painting, 20th century painting, 19th century sculpture, 20th century sculpture, folk art, crafts, Catalans and so forth. We also have drawers for our metals collections, never before on view.
NEARY: The gallery that perhaps best shows off a philosophy underlying this renovation is the Lincoln Gallery.
Ms. BROUN: So this will be a permanent collection for 20th Century.
NEARY: Tall pillars and vaulted arches give the space an open feeling, like a ballroom, and indeed President Lincoln's inaugural ball was held in this gallery.
Here windows were once covered completely with ply wood providing extra walls to hang artwork. Now this vast, brightly lit space will be used to exhibit large sculptures. It's a great example, says Broun, of how the renovation has been used to create a stunning gallery for the display of art.
Ms. BROUN: Obviously there has been a lot of thinking about the extent to which this should be reverential historic preservation at the expense of the museums, or the extent to which the need for the museums to present their collections should predominate. And what we hope we've done is to strike the balance.
NEARY: The renovation work continues with the two museums scheduled to open just in time for a fitting celebration, the Fourth of July.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
NORRIS: You can get a sneak peak at the gallery's renovations at our Web site, npr.org.