on February 23, 2009
Visiting the third-floor Great Hall of the National Portrait Gallery, it's instructive to reflect on the changes here since the building first opened in 1840. The original purpose of the Great Hall was to act as a "Temple to Invention" in the new United States Patent Office, with the galleries on the third floor constructed to house miniature models required of inventors. The building also served as the first national museum, and in fact the Declaration of Independence was on display in the Great Hall from 1841 to 1871. As many as 100,000 visitors a year came to see the wonders and curiosities housed in the Patent Office.However, when the Civil War came, the Patent Office, like many other buildings in the city, was converted to a military barracks. From 1861 to 1863, the top floor of the Patent office served as a hospital for soldiers. Poet Walt Whitman, who served as a nurse during the war, tended to wounded soldiers there. "It was a strange, solemn sight," he later recalled, "the glass [model] cases, the beds, the forms lying there, the gallery above, and the marble pavement under foot." Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, was another who tended the wounded brought to the Patent Office. In 1865, President Lincoln's second inaugural ball was held on the the top floor of the building, and the east gallery adjoining the hall served as a reception area. Sadly, in 1877 a fire badly damaged the upper floors of the Patent Office, and it was after this that much of third floor was restored in the highly ornamental Victorian style so popular at that time. Fast forward to 958, by which time the building had been marked for demolition. Luckily, President Eisenhower, advised by a group of ardent historic preservationists, decided to turn the building over to the Smithsonian Institution instead. After a major restoration in the mid sixties, the building made its debut as the National Portrait Gallery in 1968.By 2000, though, the building once again was in dire need of restoration. It took approximately six years and millions of dollars -- in fact the restoration budget ran considerably in the red and compromises had to be made -- before the old former Patent Office once again opened to the public. With this newest restoration, visiting the Great Hall today provides a glimpse back to the America of the 1870's, a time when a newly reunited nation was just beginning to sense the possibilities that lay ahead. The Great Hall has a decorative scheme and architectural details that visitors to some of the other Smithsonian buildings, such as the Castle and the Arts and Industries Building, may recognize as belonging to the same era. Then, too, there are friezes by Caspar Buberl, whose work can also be seen several blocks away at the National Building Museum. The ornately decorated hall features a geometrically patterned tiled floor, a colorful stained glass skylight, access via a grand curved double staircase, and two long galleries on either side of the main hall, each containing an upper level with an elaborate iron balcony. For the restoration, the colorful floor tiles were replaced with exact replicas from the original supplier in England, while the stained glass windows and skylight were removed and meticulously restored. The long side galleries now house two exhibitions of the portrait galleries -- "Bravo" and "Champions," portraits of famous American performing artists and sports figures, respectively. As I looked out of one of the Victorian-era windows onto a modern-day street in downtown Washington, I felt a brief temporal shift. For just a moment, I imagined being in the hall in the late 1870's, when it had just been rebuilt after the fire. What a marvel it must have been for visitors at that time, worthy of Whitman's description, "the noblest of Washington's buildings." History seems to have come full circle, in a roundabout way, for the original plan set forth by Congress in 1836 had been to construct "a place to celebrate and present the achievement of the American people," and today the National Portrait Gallery seems to do that task most admirably.
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