WASHINGTON – It's been a long six years.
But thanks to intense renovations that left it closed to the public,the historic building that houses both the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum is speeding toward its July 1 opening.
On Tuesday,a crane lifted crates to the building's second floor containing two large-scale paintings,the 10-by-16 foot “Grant and His Generals” by Ole Peter Hansen Balling,and the 22-by-5 foot “Achelous and Hercules” by Thomas Hart Benton.
It was a sign that the $216 million overhaul,which began in January 2000,is almost complete. New features of the 19th century building include original-style plaster and tiles,an additional 60,000 square feet of gallery space,more than 50 new artworks and a glass-enclosed atrium,which won't be finished until later in the year.
For the first time in the museums' history,ultraviolet light filters in the glass will enable the museums to remove walls that covered ornate windows. The windows will let controlled natural light into the galleries,eliminating a tomblike feel,said Eleanor Harvey,chief curator for the American Art Museum.
“So now the public can enjoy works in daylight that were painted in daylight,” Harvey said. “It is like a freshly refurbished old friendship.”
Harvey said they've had to be a lot more creative with their displays – opening the windows decreased wall space,and converting offices into galleries created more room for art.
“So you're going to see a lot more sculpture,and more floating walls,” she said. “And we were more creative with the walls we have to work with.”
Right now,it's hard to believe the empty,unfinished halls are one of America's favorite tourist destinations,but museum officials say they expect more than 2 million visitors in the first year after the renovation. Almost every piece has been given a new space,and the new floor plan allows for a “seamless walk” through both museums.
The historic landmark was the third public building constructed in Washington,after the Capitol and the White House. It housed President Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural ball and was used as barracks during the Civil War. The plaster and tile renovations were all done by trained artisans,and the new hand-blown glass windows were imported from Poland to preserve the building's historic integrity.
While they were closed,the museums sent many of their exhibits on tour,and now they're finally “coming home,” Harvey said. Some of the old favorites are the National Portrait Gallery's presidential portraits – the only complete collection outside the White House – original artwork from more than 1,600 Time magazine covers and the American Art Museum's Georgia O'Keeffe and Edward Hopper paintings.
The museums will also feature the new Lunder Conservation Center,the first permanent conservation facility that allows the public to view behind-the-scenes art preservation. It's designed much like the American flag preservation lab at the National Museum of American History.
But there is a downside to the renovations,Harvey said. After being closed for six years,the museums now have to re-establish their identities with the public.
“When we closed there was a general feeling of shock and dismay,” Harvey said. “But people will be pleased with what has happened. I'm looking forward to watching this sleeping giant wake up.”