Awesome as Washington's Independence Day fireworks are, this year they'll have been upstaged a bit by a historic event three days earlier. On July l, after being closed for more than six years and a $283 million renovation, the magnificent old Patent Office Building—in one of the capital city's most happening neighborhoods—will reopen, as will the two Smithsonian museums housed there, the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM).
This is a truly grand reopening, especially considering the near loss of the building and of a painting that is a national treasure. Only a presidential order in 1955 spared the edifice from being torn down to make room for a parking lot. Six years ago the Smithsonian received the devastating news that the owner of a life-size painting (known as the Lansdowne portrait) of George Washington wanted to end its long-term loan to the NPG and put the painting up for auction.
But opportunity, entrepreneurial drive and public-minded generosity came to the rescue. The fortuitous story began in Oklahoma City, when in 1916 at age 10, Donald W. Reynolds started hawking newspapers in a railroad depot. In high school he took a job at a meatpacking plant so he could study journalism, and after graduating from college, he saved to buy his own newspaper. He parlayed that purchase into a hugely successful media company and then established the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.
Soon after hearing about the potential loss of the Lansdowne portrait, the foundation donated $30 million to purchase, tour and display it. For such a generous gift alone, our nation would have been forever grateful. But the foundation was just getting started. Recognizing the importance of the old Patent Office Building and its perfect role as the home for SAAM and the NPG, it also gave $45 million to supplement other donations and some $166 million raised from Americans nationwide—in the form of a major appropriation from Congress—to help complete the renovation. Together, SAAM and the NPG will be known as the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture. As you can read further in this issue ("Back to the Future," p. 40), the Patent Office Building has a rich past. It is one of the oldest structures in Washington.
Thanks to a gift from the Lunder Foundation, the NPG and SAAM will feature a unique conservation facility with floor-to-ceiling glass walls, allowing visitors to view conservators at work. And the Henry Luce Foundation has enabled SAAM to include an art storage and study center; more than 3,300 long-hidden treasures will be on view. Also new will be the Archives of American Art's Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery; "Artists in their Studios" will be that gallery's premier exhibition. SAAM visitors will now be able to see nearly five times the number of artworks previously on display, and the renovations will also dramatically increase the NPG's ability to exhibit more of its 20,000 portraits—of all kinds of people who have shaped American history. You can read more about these new facilities and exhibitions in "Speaking of Art" (p. 48).
The Reynolds Center is located in Penn Quarter, a bustling area on the edge of Chinatown. SAAM's and the NPG's hours will be 11:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., and a state-of-the-art auditorium, a gift from Nan Tucker McEvoy, will be used for public programs and performances. Next year, a radiant glass-and-steel canopy will cover the Patent Office Building's spacious new courtyard, to be named after its benefactors, Robert and Arlene Kogod. But this year's fireworks—here and around the country—will in part already salute those first railroad depot newspaper sales, the endeavors that made the other donations possible, and ourselves as taxpayers, joining together for the common good.