Smithsonian American Art Museum
Information, photographs and a history of the building
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Address: 8th and F Street, Northwest, Washington DC
(The building is literally atop the underground "Gallery Place - Chinatown" Washington DC Metro Subway Station)
Smithsonian information phone line: 202-633-1000 TTY: 202-357-1729
Museum hours: 11:30 A.M. to 7 P.M. Daily except Christmas Day
MAP OF AREA AROUND MUSEUM:
Originally the U.S. Patent Office, this building was inaugurated in 1968 for housing the art collection previously kept at the Smithsonian "Castle" over on the Washington DC Mall. The name for this building/collection is at least the fourth one - - when I attended etching classes in the late 70s here, it was simply referred to as "The National Portrait Gallery." (That name is still used, but only for the collection of portraits displayed in one-half of the building). The official group name for the whole operation is "The Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture."
The building was dramatically rebuilt between 2000 and 2006, (at the time, some of the collection was split up into small units and sent on tour through a number of other museums throughout the United States) after the construction work was finished a lot of the pre-1968 architecture had been restored, though a new canopy now looms over the previously open-air courtyard in the center of the building.
As the Patent Office, the "Greek Revival" style building was begun in 1836, but not completed until 1865. In Pierre L'Enfant's plan for the United States Capitol, this location was intended for a "Church of the Republic" but this was altered for the creation of a "Pantheon" of heroes of the land.
The design for this building was by architect Robert Mills, and was intended to provide a radical system to fireproof the structure, but congressional involvement eventually resulted in Mills' being fired, and the finished building was headed by Thomas Walter, one of Mills harshest critics. Ironically, by inserting additional structural elements that Mills' design had eliminated to prevent fire from spreading easily, the west wing in 1877 was badly damaged by fire and some 87,000 patent models were destroyed. The restoration from 1877-1885 headed by Alfred Cluss was done in a style he called "modern Renaissance."
During the American civil war (1861-1865), the building was used to care for wounded soldiers, with an operating morgue and hospital on the premises, though it still functioned as the patent office. American poet Walt Whitman visited the men and often read to them as part of his ad hoc nursing duties.
Photo above: Notice the wet areas? It's an unusual floor-level water fountain. You can walk through it as water flows in a thin inch-or-so-deep wave over the flatstones.
In 1932 the Civil Service Commission took up residence. The south-side long stair portico was removed during street construction. By 1958, the building was considered worn out for official use, and efforts were made for it to be destroyed and replaced with much needed downtown DC parking. President Eisenhower responded to calls from historical preservation groups and instead had the building turned over to the Smithsonian museum system. The building's interior renovation began in 1964. In 1965 the designation of "National Historic Landmark" was awarded, and in 1968 the original pairing of "National Portrait Gallery" and "The National Museum of American Art" was opened.
Below: Photo of the interior of the second floor of the Portrait Gallery
The area around the Portrait Gallery / Smithsonian Museum of American Art has been heavily developed and changed from the days I was down there in the 1970s as a temporary art student and then as a messenger in the 1980s. At that time the area was run-down and the location for a number of pornographic "peep show" places, also an auction house or two, with pawn shops nearby. Off to the east within walking distance was Chinatown and various restaurants.
That whole area from 14th street on down began to renovate around 1983 or so, such that now there is a very different atmosphere. The heavy construction work, old building demolishing and streets being completely gutted and redone seems to be mostly complete now (I have heard the world of wiring and plumbing underneath the DC streets is called "the spaghetti bowl" by people who have to deal with it).
This change benefits the Smithsonian Art Museum greatly, particularly since (I suspect) it can offer its current schedule of later hours (i.e., safer hours) well into the evening for visitors. I was just there in March 2008 and the building was packed with tourists and what appeared to be local urban types. At one time the area outside the museum was not meant for the unaware to be in after dark.
The renovation inside has also greatly improved the open-air sense of such a large building. Previously the museum had some areas that were quite claustrophobic, with stale air collecting in pockets that didn't seem to be apart of the ventilation scheme.
Because of its unbeatable collection of art by Albert Pinkham Ryder, I used to visit this museum constantly on lunch hours. The one sad thing I saw from the renovation was that they broke up the adjoining mini-galleries that linked their Winslow Homer paintings with Ryders.
Below: Photo below: Patent Office in 1846, still under construction.
The Courtyard has the official name of "The Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum."
Photographs above by Erik Weems, except where noted. All Rights Reserved.