Toward the National Treasure


by Frank Getlein

The newest art museum in the country is also the oldest: the Smithsonian’s National Collection of Fine Arts, which opened at last in its own building in May, 122 years after it had been established by Congress to receive and care for any gifts of art that patriotic citizens might wish to give to the nation. The building itself is even older: the Old Patent Office Building was begun in 1836 and completed in 1867. It is thus itself a museum of the evolution of architectural thought through the middle third of the nineteenth century, and its history, taken with that of the National Collection, tells us a good deal about official American thought on the arts.

To begin with what was almost the end, the building is one of the noblest in Washington, and in the 1950s was slated to be torn down and its site made into a parking lot. The congressional government of Washington can never get enough parking lots to turn over to highpriced private operators, yet the idea of low-priced municipal parkingbuildings has always struck the Congress as socialism or worse. That same kind of curious thinking has marked the National Collection’s history, and to a less spectacular degree, the building’s.

When we think of a patent office today, most of us envision the very essence of bureaucracy, with clerks shuffling papers and files stacked to the ceilings. In the early years of the republic a quite different idea prevailed. Invention was the American Muse, and her inspiration was to lead the young nation to greatness. In fact, of course, that is exactly what has happened, but the success of the idea has led us all to take invention for granted and think of it as the rather dull, predictable output from the think tanks of the giant scientific corporations.

It was in that earlier spirit that Congress, in the 1830s, held a competition for a patent office. The site designated had been marked by L’Enfant for a national cathedral. It was appropriate. The winningdesign was entirely in keeping. William Parker Elliot drew the facades of the Parthenon, elongated them to cover the two-block site, and took the prize. It then became the responsibility of Robert Mills — the government architect who did the Treasury and the Washington Monument — to get it off the drawing board and on the ground. He did so magnificently. The space is beautifully articulated. The necessarily long corridors are never the hopeless vistas they are in so many newer Washington buildings; Mills kept strict control over proportions and the breaking of space with decorations and the opening of corridors into galleries. Several of these are breathtaking in their simplicity, daring, and strength.

The Granite Gallery, on the ground floor, has great granite pillars between which contemporary sculpture is now installed. On the third floor, the length of a football field, is the Lincoln Gallery, so named because Lincoln’s second inaugural ball was held there. Slim marble pillars divide the space for the main run of paintings and sculpture, from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth and the WPA.

The building was used as a hospital during the Civil War. Clara Barton and Walt Whitman tended the wounded on cots set up between the glass cases of models of inventions. In our own century the building was used to house the Civil Service Commission, and Mills’s wonderful space was fragmented and partitioned, desecrated and dustridden. The interior was indeed a burlesque of bureaucratic architecture, and its demolition for the parking lot trust seemed reasonable enough to people who had seen the inside and never really looked at the outside. It was saved by a vigorous campaign, and designated by Congress for the National Collection and for a new National Portrait Gallery, now scheduled to open this autumn.

The General Services Administration, the federal government’s substitute for architecture and design, has worked its mindless will to a very large extent within the Portrait Gallery, clearing out the Civil Service partitions as instructed and then automatically re-creating much the same effect by installing the all-purpose overhead governmentissue apparatus for lights, air conditioning, communications, and God knows what else. A great deal of Mills’s success in the corridors and in the larger offices comes from his graceful use of vaulted ceilings and even groined vaults, with the stress lines coming down to pilasters. The GI utility machines destroy this utterly, and at the same time destroy the proportions by establishing a visual ceiling that is lower and flat. But on the whole, the building is a splendid rediscovery for Washington architecture, and there may even be hope for what has been redestroyed. The great advantage of the utility machines is their interchangeability. Some day GSA may be persuaded to take them away and put them in a new building where they will fit into the Nondescript Modern that is the agency’s specialty.

The National Collection has an even more checkered past than its building’s. Plans for the original Smithsonian called for a spacious ground-floor gallery in the red brick Gothic castle. By the time the castle was opened, however, the scienceminded management had relegated its art to a small space on the second floor. In 1865 that entire floor was gutted by fire and the surviving paintings and sculpture transferred to the Library of Congress and the Corcoran Gallery of Art for safekeeping. Thirty-one years later a Smithsonian secretary, Samuel P. Langley, got around to asking for them back. In 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt requested Congress to designate the collection the National Gallery of Art, which it did. TR also called for national support for the new national gallery; a number of collections were contributed, and the Ranger Bequest was set up as a permanent acquisitions fund. Ironically, in response to the same call, Charles L. Freer established the Freer Gallery on the Mall, where his collection of Oriental art has been enhanced and exhibited ever since and where his extensive collection of American paintings has been hidden in the basement stacks.

In 1937 Andrew W. Mellon gave the nation his collection of European paintings and money for a building. He asked only that his collection be called the National Gallery of Art. This of course was stealing the name of what is now the NCFA, and the Collection responded exactly as a human would. It went into trauma-induced paralysis. The years piled up like the dust on the pictures. The works were crowded into pitifully inadequate space behind the north end of a southbound stuffed elephant, the largest ever captured. Few Washingtonians knew the collection existed. It was visited chiefly by tourists looking for the rest rooms.

Symbolically enough, the main acquisitional activity during the 1940s and 1950s was the building up of a superb collection of miniature paintings on ivory.

In 1958, however, Congress voted to save the Old Patent Office from the parking sharks. In 1963 Dr. David W. Scott arrived on the scene from California, at first as assistant director to his old teacher Thomas Beggs, and shortly as director. Immediately things began to happen.

Like the nature it studies, the Smithsonian abhors a vacuum. The secretary, S. Dillon Ripley, is known in the museum trade as “the Ripper” and is suspected of plotting to move into a nonexistent vacuum by making the institution somehow the No.

1 American museum. In the more modest field of government-art relations, Dr. Scott has found himself surrounded by vacuums and has vigorously interpreted the National Collection’s “mission,” or congressional charter of purpose, in such a way as to fill many.

Very early in his regime he undertook to supply the White House offices with American paintings and sculptures borrowed from dealers and artists. Shortly thereafter he received custody of the old Court of Claims, next door to Blair House, to house a permanent rotating exhibition of American arts and crafts for the edification of visiting chiefs of state and others. And from the beginning he has owned the warehouse for the State Department’s Art in Embassies program.

In spite of its name, the National Collection is a great deal more than a collection of pictures and statues. It is a collection of activities as well, all of them bound together by the art and government relation. In an age when the plastic arts are modulating into happenings, events, and environments, Dr. Scott’s organization is more in the mainstream than most.

The collection is somewhat spotty, as one might expect, but it does have some extraordinary strengths. The most recent major acquisition is the studio and its contents left in Florence by Hiram Powers. Largely on the basis of that purchase, the NCFA is certainly among the top three collections of nineteenth-century American sculpture.

NCFA owns almost the entire surviving body of work by George Catlin, the Indian painter admired by Baudelaire. Its seventeen Ryders are the largest group in the country. Dr. Scott has begun a program of salvage and rediscovery which will eventually give him an unapproached and unapproachable collection of the art produced for the government in the 1930s. The heart of the contemporary holdings is the S. C. Johnson and Son collection: 102 American paintings acquired by the wax company in and around 1960. But the NCFA is also suddenly demonstrating to both collectors and artists as donors the kind of magnetism that the National Gallery has exercised for years in the old master held.

The NCFA is a good and growing collection of American art housed in a great American building. It is a new involvement of our government in art, an involvement taken easily and naturally. At the dedication, in a talk marked for its grace and lightness of touch, President Johnson acknowledged that he could not call himself the father of the NCFA or even the grandfather, but said he hoped to be the “uncle,”one “who may not visit very often but who wishes his relatives to do well.”And who, it may be added, helps out occasionally with small gifts and large encouragement.