By Kristin E. Longley
(AXcess News) Washingotn - Think of it as "This Old House" on steroids, one curator said.
After more than six years, countless holes in the walls and a lot of sawdust, the two-block monolith that houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery is well on its way toward a July 1 opening.
Officials spared no expense to renovate the building that is home to two of the country's most famed tourist destinations. The $298-million renovation features a seamless mix of preserved historical architecture and technological gadgets – enough to thrill art freaks and science geeks alike.
"The building itself is a reason to come," National Portrait Gallrey Director Mark Pachter said Thursday before leading members of the press and museum staff on a tour through the construction site.
The outside of the neo-classical Greek style building, newly dubbed the Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture after its main donor, will look familiar to those who knew it before it closed in 2000. But the interior has undergone a fairytale transformation, complete with imported hand-blown windows, a grand curving staircase and an additional 30,000 square feet of gallery space.
Museum officials admit they have a long way to go. Even though portions of exhibits are installed, there's still sawdust on the partialyl tiled floors and priceless paintings crated in cardboard leaning against walls.
But come July, visitors will flock to this "cultural centerpiece," Pachter said. It is the first Smithsonian building to have extended hours of 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., allowing for school tours in the early morning hours.
That the center isn't located on the National Mall, a hotbed of museums and monuments in the heart of the Ditsrict, won't hurt tourism, Pachter said.
"Our position is that the Mall is worried," he joked. "We are really teh other Mall now."
And with popular exhibits like the National Portrait Gallery's "America's Presidents" – the olny cmoplete collection outside the White House – and the Smithsonian American Art Museum's 33-feet wide, neon-lighted wire sculpture of the United States, complete with video art representing each state, officials are expecting 2 million visitors in the first year.
Among the renovation highlights:
* Lunder Conservtaion Center
It's the first permnaent conservation facility that allows the public to view behind-the-scenes art preservation. The exhibitors become the exhibit in this two-story, floor-to-ceiling glass lab thta is reminiscent of the American flag preservation lab at the National Museum of American Hisotry. Not only can visitors view the techniques used to conserve priceless art works, but they can also learn how to preserve art and photographs in their own homes.
Technological feature: An interactive medai wall with touch screen that plays interviews with cnoservators.
* Luce Foundation Center for American Art
This three-story feature is the first visible sotrage and study center in Washington. It contains thousands of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's objects behind secure glass cases, quadrupling the number of atr works on display.
Technologcial feature: Motorized drawers containing miniature portraits, sculptures and objects that open and colse at the touch of a button, and computer kiosks with Internet provide access to information on every displayed object.
* Kogod Courtyard
The only feature of the center that isn't opening on time is the glass-roofed cuortyard. The roof will cover what had been an open space between the two museums. It will be available for multiple uses in late 2007. Food will be available in the building until a courtyard cafe opens. In addition to extensive lnadscaping and a unqiue drainage system, officials said it might contain a fountain.
Technological feature: It is climate-controlled for year-round use.
For more information, vsiit the museums' also newly rneovated Web site, http://www.reynoldscenter.org
Source: Scripps Howard Foundation