The National Portrait Gallery is more than a beautiful structure and a fantastic museum. It is a landmark in Washington, D.C. During the Civil War, poet Walt Whitman cared for ailing soldiers billeted here, and President Abraham Lincoln held his second inauguration in our Great Hall. Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross, walked these halls as a clerk to the Patent Office commissioner. It houses the country’s founding documents, administrative buildings, and public collections. It was saved from demolition in the 1950s and revived as a piece of the Smithsonian Institution.
Over one million people visit this architectural wonder annually to see exhibitions, participate in activities, or attend performances. On sunny days, Washingtonians take their lunch breaks on the 7th Street steps, while on rainy days, they seek shelter in the Courtyard. It is one of the most beloved structures in the nation’s capital, including the White House and the Capitol.
The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum share this magnificent historic structure. It is one of the oldest public buildings in Washington. It is also one of the nation’s most outstanding examples of Greek Revival architecture.
The old is balanced with the new. The Lunder Conservation Center, which opened on the third floor in 2006, is a rare fine-art facility that allows visitors to watch conservators care for national treasures delegated to both museums through floor-to-ceiling windows.
The Patent Office Building is a National Historic Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Pierre L’Enfant had assigned the location for a national non – denominational congregation or pantheon of heroes in his original plan for the US Capital. It has porticoes modelled after the Parthenon in Athens and was appreciated by Walt Whitman as “the noblest of Washington buildings.” The building was designed by architect Robert Mills and is made of Virginia freestone and sandstone, as well as marble and granite from Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maryland. The quadrangle is built around a central courtyard and measures 405 by 274 feet. The building’s construction started in 1836 and was completed in 1867. In 1842, the Patent Office relocated to the building. The property also accommodated various bureaus of the US Department of the Interior from 1847 to 1917. It served as a military hospital and barracks for the Rhode Island Militia during the Civil War. It hosted President Lincoln’s second inaugural ball in March 1865. A fire in 1877 severely damaged the top floors of the north and west wings, necessitating the restoration of much of the third floor in the famous ornamented Victorian style of the period.
The building began a six-year renovation in 2000, restoring it to its original glory and making it a focal point of the revitalised downtown district. The finished structure fully utilises the building’s many exceptional architectural features, such as porticoes, colonnades, vaulted galleries, and a curving double staircase. A 346-seat underground auditorium; a public conservation lab and art-storage area; a café; a shared museum store; and a shared main entrance for both museums on F Street, NW are among the new features.
The widely known Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard is a standout feature of the renovated building. Its elegant canopy, designed by world-renowned architects Foster + Partners, adds a unique, contemporary accent to the Greek Revival style of the museums. The roof is a wavy glass-and-steel framework that floats over the courtyard, allowing natural light inside while shielding tourists from the elements. The double-glazed glass panels are set in a grid entirely supported by eight aluminium-clad columns positioned around the courtyard’s perimeter, ensuring the roof load does not jeopardise the historic structure. In a word, it’s spectacular.
Foster’s canopy is distinguished and converts a courtyard that was once a spring-and-fall attraction into a year-round, compelling, and peaceful public space. If you’re meeting someone for dinner, a movie, or a theatre in Penn Quarter — the neighbourhood surrounding the Old Patent Office Building at Eighth and F streets NW — this is a good, free, sheltered place to do it. At least until 7 p.m., when the museums close.
It is, however, worth seeing the canopy at different times throughout the day. A glass roof is an undulating form supported by eight slender columns. When the sun is out, it casts a lattice of shadows on the walls of the old building. The sky seems farther away, chilly and remote when it’s cloudy. When the sun sets, the double-glazed glass filters the light and colours into a watery, otherworldly presence.
Far from detracting from the historic structure, the glass canopy enhances it, drawing out the sandy colour and texture of the south wing and the greenish-grey granite hues of the north. – Philip Kennicott, Washington Post Staff Writer, November 19, 2007.
The story of the National Portrait Gallery demonstrates the complexities and contradictions of the United States. It has boosted national pride by displaying scientific exploration, technological innovation, and artistic creation. However, it has also been a spot of class, gender, and racial conflict, as well as wartime suffering, death, and governmental exploitation of inhabitants, lands, and resources. This ever-changing structure’s rich and often contradictory history teaches that the United States national past includes error and achievement.
- History | National Portrait Gallery [online], (no date). National Portrait Gallery | National Portrait Gallery. [Viewed 9 December 2022]. Available from: https://npg.si.edu/about-us/history
- National Portrait Gallery [online], (no date). Smithsonian Institution Archives. [Viewed 9 December 2022]. Available from: https://siarchives.si.edu/history/national-portrait-gallery
- Smithsonian Institution Courtyard | Foster + Partners [online], (no date). Architectural Design and Engineering | Foster + Partners. [Viewed 9 December 2022]. Available from: https://www.fosterandpartners.com/projects/smithsonian-institution-courtyard