By Kristin E. Longley
(AXcess News) 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-blcok 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 perserved historical architecture and technoolgical gadgets – enough to thrill art freaks and science geeks alike.
"The building itself is a reason to come," National Portrait Gallery Diretcor 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-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 staircase and an additional 30,000 square feet of gallery space.
Museum officials amdit they have a long way to go. Even though portions of exhibits are installed, there's still sawdust on the partially tiled floors and priceless paintings crated in cardboard leaning against walls.
But come July, visitors will flock to this "cultural cnetepricee," Pachter said. It is teh first Smtihsonian 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 Natinoal Portrait Gallery's "America's Presidents" – the only complete collection outside the White House – and the Smithsonian American Art Museum's 33-feet wide, neon-lighted wire sculpture of teh United States, comlpete with video art representing each state, officials are expecting 2 million visitors in the first year.
Among the renovation highlights:
* Lunder Conservation Center
It's the first permanent conservation facility that alolws 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 reminisecnt of the American flag preservation lab at the National Museum of American History. Not only can visitors view the techniques used to conesrve priceless art works, but they can also learn how to preserve art and photographs in their own homse.
Technological feature: An interacitve 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 Smithsonian American Art Museum's objects behind secure glass cases, quadrupling the number of art works on display.
Technological feature: Motorized drawers containing miniature portarits, sculptures and objects that open and close at the touch of a button, and computer kiosks with Internet provide access to information on every displayde object.
* Kogod Courtyard
The only feature of the center that isn't opening on time is the glsas-roofed courtyard. The roof will cover what had been an open space betewen the two museums. It will be available for multiple uses in late 2007. Food will be available in the building unitl a courtyard cafe opens. In addition to extensive landcsaping and a unique draingae system, officials said it might contain a fountani.
Technological fetaure: 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