The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum
Two sophisticated off-the-Mall museums in downtown Washington, DC, are the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum. They share the colossal Greek Revival building located between 8th and 9th St, NW and F and G St, NW, that once housed the US Patent Office. The building was designed by Robert Mills who also designed the Washington Monument. The original section of the Patent Office was opened in 1836 and the final portion was completed in 1857. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Ball was held here. The extensive renovations were funded by philanthropist, Donald W. Reynolds and the entire building housing the two museums have been renamed the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture.
Both the original building and the 1857 expansion have undergone extensive historic preservation. In 2007 a spectacular roof over an outdoor courtyard was installed. The roof unites the two buildings, enclosing the courtyard. Because the roof is wavy glass with an interlocking reflective steel grid, at different times of the day it seems to hover or disappear entirely. Formally named the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, it is a large, ethereal space protected from the elements, filled with plants, a subtle water feature and suffused with glowing, natural light. The courtyard and café are open to the public and afford a luxurious break from the hustle and noise of downtown Washington, DC, and could be just the spot for a first meet-up with someone special.
The National Portrait Gallery at 8th and G St, NW, is located in the oldest portion of the Old Patent Office. The entrance to the National Portrait Gallery is via the steps along the G Street side; it opens at 11 AM and closes at 7 PM Wednesday through Sunday. We suggest verifying hours by calling 202-633-1000. One of the entrances to Gallery Place Metro is located next to the building at 9th and G St, NW. At the heart of the National Portrait Gallery are the portraits of all America’s presidents- the only complete collection outside of the White House.
If you are in DC for meetings and discover you have a gap in your schedule The American President’s gallery is the place for you! It takes less than half an hour to view this unforgettable collection of presidential portraits.
A magnificent staircase, originally part of the Patent Office, has been fully restored and makes an elegant entrance to America’s Presidents display on the second floor (elevators available). The portraits were approved by every president – these images show are how they wanted us to remember them. Some portraits are photos, some are oil paintings and occasionally there are sculptures and busts including the hands of Abraham Lincoln made from wax castings long before his assassination. Alexander Gardner’s evocative “cracked plate” photo portrait of an exhausted Lincoln was made just 2 months before his death.
Aside from presidents there are 1400 portraits on display of many famous people telling the multifaceted story of the United States including portraits of Katy Perry, Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglas, Benjamin Franklin, Charlie Chaplin, Hank Aaron and Harriet Tubman.
For even more grown-up fun try the museum next door, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (known as SAAM) which shares the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The Kogod Courtyard separates the two museums internally. The main entry to SAAM is at the top of the steps facing F St, NW, at 8th St, NW. This collection of art made in America began in 1829. It contains 7000 works – representing the New Deal, Contemporary, the Gilded Age, photography and folk art. You’ll find works by Georgia O’Keefe, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and John Singer Sargent to name just a few on display.
The American Art Museum’s crafts collection is displayed at a second campus, the Renwick Gallery located across the street from the White House (west of Blair House) which is open 7 days a week from 10:00 AM to 5:30 PM. Originally known as the American Louvre, this building, was completed in 1859 and designed by Architect James Renwick as a gallery for the Corcoran Collection. In 1963 Jackie Kennedy saved the Renwick from the wrecking ball.
Upstairs in the Renwick’s permanent collection, you’ll will find a dazzling glass lighting fixture by Dale Chihuly, the enigmatic Ghost Clock by Wendel Castle and sculpture by Mia Lin, architect of The Wall at the Viet Nam Memorial on the National Mall. Not to be missed in the Grand Salon on the second floor are installations of billowing ceiling art – best viewed by laying on the floor. On the lower level are revolving exhibits of crafts of all kinds made in America – most recently an extensive collection of art inspired by the Burning Man Festival!
The Smithsonian American Art Museum
8th & F Street NW8th & F Street NW8th & F Street NW
This museum holds one of the world’s largest and most inclusive collections of art, from the colonial period to the present, made in the United States. The museum has more than 7,000 artists represented in the collection. Most exhibitions take place in the museum’s main building, the old Patent Office Building (shared with the National Portrait Gallery).