This weekend I visited the National Portrait Gallery, the museum that recently garnered headlines (and a huge spike in attendance) for displaying Stephen Colbert’s portrait as a joke. The building holds many amazing pictures of great people (greater, even, than Colbert), as well as the Smithsonian American Art Museum. That museum’s diverse and interesting works range from wall-sized graffiti to posters made by the Center for Land Use Interpretation of Culver City, California, including one from a 2001 exhibit, Barricades of the Federal District.
After 9/11, Federal agencies rushed to barricade Washington against potential threats, both real and imagined, which meant bollards, concrete barriers, and more. This was part of the impetus for the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. New York eventually removed the barriers that office buildings had thsemselves put up, and in Washington, some of the security barricades have gone while the NCPC and NPS have worked to make others less intrusive. Still, many areas like that around the White House continue to feel extremely forbidding.
Image from Penn Quarterlife
Speaking of forbidding, the Greek Revival Old Patent Office Building that houses the Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum is a great example of the best and worst of Federal Washington. A beautiful, historic building, it adds a visually stunning contrast to the modern buildings of Gallery Place. Yet unlike the nearby, newer Spy Museum, it does not engage the street at all, with the entire perimeter of the block a wrought-iron fence except for the two grand staircases to the entrances and a loading dock.
Its dramatic public space is a courtyard on the interior, cut off completely from the city around it. At night, when Gallery Place is at its most vibrant, the Gallery itself is a dark empty zone in an otherwise energetic area. While the interior was recently renovated to restore the building’s glory, the exterior retains the standoffishness of too many federal structures downtown.