"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.

Foster's canopy is distinguished, and it converts a courtyard that was once a spring-and-fall attraction into a year-round, compelling and peaceful public space. If you're meeting someone for dinner, a movie or theater in Penn Quarter -- the neighborhood surrounding the Old Patent Office Building at Eighth and F streets NW -- this is a good, free, sheltered place to do it. At least until 7 p.m., when the museums close.

It is, however, worth seeing the canopy at different times throughout the day. The glass roof is an undulating form, supported by eight slender columns. When the sun is out, it casts a lattice of shadows on the walls of the old building. When it's cloudy, the sky seems farther away, chilly and remote. When the sun is setting, the double-glazed glass filters the light and colors into a watery, otherworldly presence.

Far from detracting from the historic structure, the glass canopy enhances it, drawing out the sandy color and texture of the south wing (the oldest part of the Patent Office, built between 1836 and 1842) and the greenish-gray granite hues of the north wing (finished in 1857).

Philip Kennicott, Washington Post Staff Writer
November 19, 2007