Patent Office, now Portrait Gallery, by Mills; Walter; Schulze & Cluss; Foster, et. al.

October 28, 2014

My tribute to the portrait gallery is, ironically enough, a lost portrait. Susan and I were there a few summers ago, and we took in all kinds of art and architecture. I can remember the great pleasures of sightseeing together with a vividness that is accompanied by the recollection of sore feet. The ‘lEnfant/Ellicott plan may have presciently foreseen the growth of a great world capital long before its time, but a key part of the result is that the walking distances are long. The feet become tired and sore.

 

All the better, then, that the newly enclosed courtyard of the portrait gallery is paved with quality black stone and punctuated with what you might call pools of water, though they are literally fractions of an inch deep. Water flows into them imperceptibly from some kind of slot at one end. They must be inclined for water to flow down them, and then for it to drain similarly invisibly at the other end. They are wet rectangles, or, as I called them at the time, designer puddles.

 

We took off our shoes and socks, the better to tromp through them with child-like glee. A German tourist saw us trying to take a self-portrait and offered to take a shot for us. There we are, or were, in our summer traveling regalia, dusty and tired, smiling. But I had a hard drive crash at a point with only a partial back up, so I think all of the D.C. shots are lost, including the ones of me in front of the portrait of HH Richardson and also facing profile of Jefferson. Too bad.

 

The portrait Gallery itself, repository of so many splendid historic images, itself has faced near loss of various kinds over the years. Even recently, its remodeling in the first decade of the millennium, cost $280 million when it was originally budgeted at $42 million. That project nearly stalled with each one of the numerous price increases. Having visited and been absolutely delighted in the architecture and the collection, I say it was money well spent. So build one fewer bomber.

 

Not so many decades earlier, it was practically abandoned in the 1950s, which left it susceptible to demolition. What has been used as a hospital during the Civil War was originally the Patent Office. Typically of the breed, what now seems a low-reaching and deeply anachronistic pile in relation to contemporary structures was actually a huge, current and beautiful monument in its day, which began in 1836 under Andrew Jackson. Robert Mills completed the first wing to designs largely by William P. Eliot.  Thomas Ustick Walter, the architect of the Capitol dome, replaced (the seemingly long-suffering) Mills in 1851 and completed the additional 3 wings. A major fire (one of seemingly numerous) in the west and north wings happened in 1877. Architects Paul Schulze and Adolf Cluss repaired the damage. In the 1880s, they constructed the multi-story Great Hall in a busy Victorian classicism that epitomizes the era’s attempts to make fussiness with detail seem elegant.

 

Greek Revival architecture of this kind is sweet in its lumbering naiveté. The craving for monumentality is palpable in the huge pieces of stone and the suitably classical Greek columns and entablatures executed with devoted schoolbook accuracy. Descriptions invariably boast how the front portico is modeled on the Parthenon. See? Democracy in built form! In hindsight, they seem like nursery rhymes sung with operatic tones, but they could hardly capture the sentiments of the era better.

 

For people who like classical architecture with its guiding rules for syntax and form, the austere correctness without much flair for originality is strangely reassuring.

 

Meanwhile, the courtyard, with its beautiful landscaped puddles, is part of the 2000s era enclosure by architect Norman Foster. The canopy has supporting columns which are placed a few feet into the perimeter of the court to support the new roof without putting undue structural burden on the historic architecture. The canopy itself undulates organically, cresting at its center in a fabric of diamond shaped panes, which seem to respond in fluid fashion to the porticoes and projections of the original structures, surging in an upward wave. The process by which the new technological enclosure was approved, rejected, and then approved again was circuitous, time-consuming, and costly. In the end, the results seem splendid for making the court into a year-around space. Likewise, it allows yet another chance to see what a correctly iterated classical facade can look like, in this case, with pilasters. Contemporary architecture can serve the ongoing health of historic architecture. 

 

And those little pools. They are like larger reflecting pools brought down to a more domestic size and implementation, though nothing else about this building is domestic in size. Pools reflect, as do portraits, but at different angles and in varying fashions. Every once in a while, you see with your feet. 

 

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