Courtyard Blends the Modern and Historic

Posted November 16, 2007 at 5:10pm

The historic Patent Office Building, which now houses two Smithsonian museums, just got a bit more modern. The site that once hosted Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural ball is now home to a covered courtyard with a cafe and free wireless Internet.

The Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture unveiled the long-awaited Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard on Sunday. The 28,000-square-foot space near the center of the building is covered by a canopy of 864 unique glass panels designed to let in 36 percent of the natural light.

The courtyard was designed by Foster + Partners and cost $63 million. The project was part of a larger renovation of the entire historic building that began in 2001 and totaled $283 million.

“This courtyard is yet another unique gift from the Smithsonian … to the world,” Smithsonian Institute Acting Secretary Cristián Samper said at a press conference, adding that the new space is an inspired blend of modern and historic sensibilities.

Roughly 1,200 people can fit in the enclosure, which is available for events and will be open year-round.

The courtyard houses a variety of trees and shrubs, contributing to an outdoor feel despite the enclosed setting. Landscaper Kathryn Gustafson of Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd. chose ficus and black olive trees that would thrive indoors.

The building housing the courtyard has a rich history. It was constructed in phases from 1836 to 1868 and is registered as a National Historic Landmark. Originally used as a patent office, the structure also was used as a hospital and morgue during the Civil War before it began housing the Smithsonian museums in 1968. Walt Whitman once called it “the noblest of Washington buildings.”

Major renovations started in 2001 and entailed the replacement of all key mechanical systems and the installation of 550 new windows in an effort to protect artwork inside from ultraviolet rays. Plans to enclose the courtyard date back to 2002.

The Smithsonian celebrated the opening of the courtyard with a free Friends and Family Festival on Sunday, featuring art workshops and music and dance programs.