National Portrait Gallery

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In the dreary wasteland of cheap rooming houses and parking lots, nudie shows and pinball parlors, it is surprising to come so suddenly and unexpectedly upon what is surely one of the great buildings in the nation’s capital. Only the White House and the Capitol itself are older; only they can rival it in form and beauty and audacious splendor; yet it is typical of the unassuming role this structure has played in the District of Columbia’s recent past that it docs not even have a proper sort of name. Long-time residents still call it the Old Patent Office Building; officially, it is now the Fine Arts and Portrait Gallery Building, to indicate that it is shared by the National Collection of Fine Arts and the National Portrait Gallery; but mention either name to an inexperienced taxi driver and chantes are lie will have In ask for directions. Only a tiny fraction of the ten million Americans who visit Washington cacli year arc even aware of its existence, but this ncoclassic pile occupies two full city blocks in the run-down, not-quitc-blightcd Southeast section, and within its superbly vaulted halls will one day hang the collection of pictures that even now is bravely called the National Portrait Gallery.

Here, 177 years ago, at a point roughly halfway between the President’s house and the building Congress was to occupy on Tenkins’ Hill, Pierre Charles L’Enfant envisioned a national pantheon. L’Enfant, a wildly improvident French painter-turned-architect-and-city-planner, who was chosen to design the new Federal City because his sense of scale appealed to George Washington, was a man of sudden whim and passion, and one feature of his grandiloquent scheme for the capital was that the site in the Southeast area now defined by Seventh, Ninth, F, and G streets should he a place of honor for the nation’s immortals. In a curious though far from fully defined way, that is approximately what is now taking place; but how it came to pass, in the contorted course of a century and three quarters, requires a long backward look at the venerable building and its story.

By 1836—long after L’Enfant—Congress adopted a design submitted by William Parker Elliott for a monumental building inspired by the Parthenon, and almost immediately President Andrew Jackson—who believed in turning things over to his own men—appointed his court architect, Robert Miller, to execute the work. (“ We have entered a new era in the history of the world,” Mills proclaimed; “it is our destiny to lead, not to be led.”) When the south section of the buildingwas completed in 1840, it was not, as L’Enfant had hoped, the mortal remains of the nation’s heroes that were admitted, but the Patent Office—that “temple of the useful arts,” which had been destroyed by fire four years earlier along with its collection of seven thousand patent models.

For two decades the edifice grew and its contents proliferated until, by 1860, it contained not only the Patent Office but also the Department of the Interior, the National Institute, the National Museum, and the latest marble-topped washstands and a cuspidor-sterilizing system. An unfriendly critic might sneer at the building as “American composite, a sort of conglomerated specimen of native growth,” but Latimer’s Guide Book hailed it aptly as “one of the greatest ornaments of the city.” During the Civil War, troops were quartered in the building from time to time, and after the Battle of Antietam, wounded and dying men by the hundreds were laid out on the marble floors between display cases full of patent models and assorted mementos collected by Captain Charles Wilkes in the South Seas and Commodore Matthew C. Perry in Japan. Clara Barton and Walt Whitman ministered to the suffering soldiers there, and Whitman described how “two of the immense apartments arc filled with high and ponderous glass cases, crowded with models in miniature of every kind of utensil, machine or invention it ever entered into the mind of man to conceive; and with curiosities and foreign presents. Between these cases are lateral openings, perhaps eight feet wide and quite deep, and in these were placed the sick; besides a great long double row of them, up and down through the middle of the hall. Many of them are very bad … wounds, and amputations.”