I’ve probably talked about this before – I have a genealogical as well as spiritual connection to the National Portrait Gallery. An ancestor of mine, Senator John Ruggles of Maine was a big fan of all things patent related. During his tenure as a senator (1830-36), he realized that the US Patent Office was in horrible disarray. They were housed in an old building in poor condition, and as such it was a terrible disservice to patent seekers, patent holders, and the nation as a whole – if it was hard to get or defend a patent, innovators would leave the country and take their industries elsewhere. As a result, he managed to wrestle a patent office reform and the allocation of funds to build a new, fireproof, patent office building out of congress. The building now occupied by the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum is that building. During the civil war, it functioned as a barracks and a hospital, and in 1865 it housed Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural ball.
The building was built not only as a warehouse and government office, but from the first it was open to the public as an exhibition space to come see the patent models submitted with patent applications. As such, it makes for a fantastic museum, complete with dramatic display spaces to showcase some sometimes rather large pieces of art. This niche is a perfect example – all it took was some velvet curtains and matching settee.
It has several of the most exquisite and dramatic staircases in the city, in my opinion. The following photos are of the main stairs that run from the F Street entrance up to the grand gallery on the third and fourth floors. There is another staircase that I can’t do justice to with the Rollei because it requires a wide-angle lens to show the sweep of the bannister and the giant mural of General Grant and his generals that spans the curved wall behind the stairs.
The brass and wood balustrade sweeps around in dramatic fashion. Wouldn’t you love to have a staircase like this in your house?
This chandelier is on the second floor landing. The window behind looks out into the courtyard of the dual museums. A few years ago, the courtyard was roofed over with a roof designed by Norman Foster. I was initially opposed to the concept of roofing the courtyard, removing the garden and paving the space with dark gray pavers. However, with time, I’ve come to love the space. They did keep some greenery, and made the space useable 365 days a year.
The chandelier is vintage mid-19th century gas adapted to electricity. It’s always a challenge to balance updating and modernization with historical preservation. I think they did an overall outstanding job with this building, and I’m thrilled to see it maintaining relevance and utility into the 21st century.