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The Courtyard is the Star of the Museum

One of my favorite museums in Washington, D.C. is the National Portrait Gallery. It is part of the Smithsonian group of museums and houses portraits of many famous people and a small collection of American Art.

It was not always the Portrait Gallery. The building’s first use was to house the Patent Offices. At that time inventors were required to not only submit drawings of their inventions, but also scaled prototypes. Thus, to store all these, sometimes-large items, the Patent Office was constructed. It filled a whole city block.

The building was erected from 1836 until 1867 and designed in the Greek Revival style by Robert Mills. It fit in the urban landscape according to L’Enfant classical plan. Like a Greek temple it sits on a plinth, surrounded with columns capped with a gable. Converted to a museum in 1964, and renovated in 2007, the architecture includes a large covered inner courtyard, which is now more usable. It is this area which is an old made new and more grand that I think is this museum’s great space.


The Kogod Courtyard in 2012. Photo by Acroterion

As part of the renovation efforts the Smithsonian officials proposed a glass canopy for the inner courtyard. Although Congress approved the design, preservationist pushed back, thinking it would detract from the integrity of the original design and destroy existing landscaping and fountains. Foster and Partners, architects for the project reduced the height of the glass roof and rested it on eight pillars rather than the original roof in response to these complaints. It took the Smithsonian over a year with many revisions to produce a satisfactory design. Ironically, the approved design is very much like the original concept. Sometimes preservationists can drip themselves up.


The courtyard is the star of the museum, it's great space. As Washington Post critic, Phillip Kennicott said the courtyard is a "compelling and peaceful public space". He explained that preservationists assumed that the glass roof would detract attention from the building, but that is not the case. He said, "the glass canopy enhances it, drawing out the sandy color and texture of the south wing...and the greenish-gray granite hues of the north wing," emphasizing the details and reliefs with the play of light. Conde Nast Traveler magazine named it one of the “new seven wonders of the architecture.” I do not know about that designation, but it is certainly a very usable space for large events, yet intimate enough to sit and read, not to mention air conditioned and pleasant year-round. It is this flexibility of space and the juxtaposition of classical design with modern which harmonize in a large yet inviting area that makes this space great. Two creative things are happening at once and each make a better whole.


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