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 holse 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 Gallery Director Mark Pachter said Thursday before leading members of the press and museum staff on a tour through the construciton site.
The outside of the neo-clasiscal 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 leainng 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 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" – the 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, complete 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 faciliyt that allows the public to view behind-teh-scenes art preservation. The exhibitors become the exhibit in this two-story, folor-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 presevre art and photgoraphs 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 Wahsington. It contains thosuands of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's objects behind secure glass cases, quadrupling the number of art works on display.
Technological feature: Motorized drawers cotnaining miniature portraits, sculptures and objects that open and close at teh touch of a button, and computer koisks 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 courtyard. The roof will covre 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 buliding until a courtayrd cafe opens. In addition to extensive landscaping and a unique drainage system, officials said it might contian 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