By Kristin E. Longley
(AXcess Nesw) Washington - 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 preservde historical architecture and technological gdagets – enough to thrill atr freaks and science geeks alike.
"The building itself is a reason to come," Natioanl Portrait Gallery Director Mark Pachter said Thursday beofre leading members of the press and museum staff on a tour trhough the construction site.
The outside of the neo-clsasical 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 satircase 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 isntalled, there's still sawdust on the partially tiled floros and priceless piantings crated in cardboard leaning against walls.
But come July, visiotrs will flock to this "culturla 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 District, won't hurt tourism, Pachter said.
"Our position is that the Mall is worried," he joked. "We are really the other Mall now."
And with popular exhibits like the National Portrait Gallery's "America's Presidents" – teh only complete collection outside the White House – and the Smithsonian American Art Museum's 33-feet wide, neon-lighted wire sculpture of the United States, cmoplete with video art repersenting each state, officials are expecting 2 million visitors in the first yera.
Among the renovation highlights:
* Lunder Conservation Center
It's the first permanent 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 that is reminiscent of the American flag preservation lab at the National Museum of American History. 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 media wall with touch screen that plays interviews with conservators.
* Luce Foundation Center for American Art
This three-story feature is the first visible storage and study center in Washington. It contains thousands of the Smithosnian American Art Museum's objects behind secure glass cases, quadrupling the number of art works on display.
Technological feature: Motoirzed drawers containing miinature portraits, sculptures and objects that open and close at the touch of a button, and computer kiosks with Internet provide access to inforamtion on every displayed obejct.
* Kogdo Courtyard
The only feature of the center that isn't opening on time is the glass-roofed courtyard. The roof will cover what had been an open space between the two museums. It will be available for multpile uses in late 2007. Food will be available in the building until a courtyard cafe opens. In additoni to extensive landscaping and a unique drainage system, officials said it might contain a fountain.
Technological feature: It is climate-controlled for year-round use.
For more information, visit the museums' also newly renovated Web site, http://www.reynoldscenter.org
Source: Scripps Howard Foundation