"that noblest of Washington buildings"—Walt Whitman
It is more than a grand building and more than a great museum. The National Portrait Gallery is a Washington institution. Poet Walt Whitman tended to ailing soldiers billeted here during the Civil War, and President Abraham Lincoln celebrated his second inaugural in our Great Hall. Red Cross founder Clara Barton walked these halls when she worked as a clerk to the Patent Office commissioner.
It once housed our country’s founding documents and served as home to government offices and public collections. In the 1950s it survived demolition and was reborn as part of the Smithsonian.
Now more than one million visitors come to this National Historic Landmark Building each year to view exhibitions, participate in programs, or attend performances. Washingtonians spend their lunch breaks taking in sun on the 7th Street steps or seeking shelter in the Courtyard on rainy days. Along with the White House and the Capitol, it is one of the most loved structures in the nation’s capital.
The National Portrait Gallery shares this magnificent National Historic Landmark Building with the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It is one of Washington's oldest public buildings. Begun in 1836 to house the U.S. Patent Office, it is also among the nation's finest examples of Greek Revival architecture. A recent renovation restored its most dramatic architectural features, including skylights, a curving double staircase, porticos, and vaulted galleries illuminated by natural light.
The old is complemented by the new. The Lunder Conservation Center, installed on the third floor in 2006 is a rare type of fine–art facility that allows visitors to look through floor–to–ceiling windows as conservators care for the national treasures entrusted to both museums.
A signature element of the renovated building is the popular Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard. With its elegant canopy designed by world–renowned architects Foster + Partners, it provides a distinctive, contemporary accent to the museums' Greek Revival style. The roof is a wavy glass–and–steel structure that appears to float over the courtyard, letting in natural light but protecting visitors from the elements. The double–glazed glass panels are set in a grid completely supported by eight aluminum–clad columns located around the perimeter of the courtyard, so that the weight of the roof does not compromise the historic building. It is, in a word, spectacular.