Portrait Gallery Recalls Neighborhood Progress

Posted March 10, 2010 at 3:06pm

Step back in time, say about 15 years, and Penn Quarter, that bustling D.C. neighborhood between Fifth and Ninth streets Northwest south of F Street, is virtually unrecognizable: The streets are infested with adult bookstores, run-down buildings, trash and a generally seedy look.

This really isn’t the best side of town to come by; just walking up Seventh Street to reach what is today the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is an uncomfortable trip.

Fast-forward to the Penn Quarter of today, and such a scene couldn’t really be replicated. It’s easy to forget that not long ago, the area wasn’t a bustling commercial destination. Only in the late 1990s was the area brought back with the building of the MCI Center, now the Verizon Center, which spurred neighborhood revitalization.

Even though it’s hard to fathom how things once were, you can now at least get a sense. Last week, the National Portrait Gallery opened “Glimpse of the Past: A Neighborhood Evolves,” a photography exhibit that explores the evolution of Penn Quarter from the perspective of the Old Patent Office Building. The exhibit will run until January 2012.

Now the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture — and home to both the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum — the building covers an entire city block between F and G streets and Seventh and Ninth streets. Built in 1836, the historic Patent Office is one of Washington’s oldest buildings. As such, the photographs of the surrounding city blocks — and of the building itself — tell the history of the city.

The exhibit encompasses views from the 1800s, the early 1900s, up to today. Images were culled from many different sources, including the Portrait Gallery’s own Patent Office collection, the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., the Library of Congress and the Washingtoniana Collection at the D.C. Public Library. Many of the present-day images were taken by National Portrait Gallery photographer Mark Gulezian.

This isn’t the first time since the Patent’s Office reopening in 2006 that an exhibit has focused on the building’s history, but it is the first to marry the building’s history with that of Penn Quarter.

“This time we decided it would be nice to show the neighborhood surrounding it,” said Beverly Cox, director of exhibitions and collections management. “The exhibition shows the evolution of the neighborhood from a commercial hub to a seedy, run-down slum and then back again to a lively, vibrant city center.”

Photos in the front of the Allan J. and Reda R. Riley Gallery anchor the history of the building itself, with the surrounding walls focusing on individual side streets.

Text accompanying an 1855 chromolithograph traces the building’s origins to city planner Pierre L’Enfant, who symbolically set aside a square of land between the two branches of government to the south. The land was destined to develop into a commercial zone — even though L’Enfant envisioned the square as a cathedral or a pantheon to American heroes — as it is spaced a few blocks off Pennsylvania Avenue between what would become the White House and Capitol Hill. In 1836, L’ Enfant’s idea of a cathedral was replaced with an office for American ingenuity.

The testament to L’Enfant’s vision wasn’t always certain. In 1925, Congress considered removing the office at the request of merchants. Nearly 10 years later, in 1936, the building underwent a major cosmetic change — the removal of the grand staircase — to facilitate the expansion of F Street. An aerial photo from 1920 shows what once was that staircase.

As the 20th century progressed, the decline of Penn Quarter — precipitated by the suburbanization of Washington, D.C., during the baby boom era — again caused the consideration of the building’s demolition. Only with the team action of David E. Finley, founding chairman of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the building saved. In 1968, the Patent Office was transformed into a museum.

In the Patent Office section of the exhibit, visitors will see the image of President Richard Nixon and the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), the latter of whom began the process of revitalizing downtown Pennsylvania Avenue in the early 1960s. The exhibit also includes a small bronze statue of the lawmaker, whose redevelopment efforts began when he was assistant to the secretary of Labor.

Ample attention is given to each of the side streets surrounding the building. In many cases, the contrast between Penn Quarter’s highs and lows is clear. For example, an early 20th-century photograph shows a bustling stretch of F Street between Eighth and Ninth streets, while an image from 1992 shows a rundown F Street at the 800 block without a person in sight. Images from Seventh Street in 1968 show the fallout in Washington following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

A fun exercise is to match the modern images to the same perspective in historic photographs. With close attention, it’s clear how many modern structures have been added on to facades of older buildings.

The mounted images are broken up with an interactive component. Snapshots from Chris Earnshaw, a local writer, photographer and historian, provide an educational overview of many buildings during the 1960s and ’70s.

As ultra-modern as Penn Quarter is today, it’s refreshing to gain some perspective. In between visits to the neighborhoods’ restaurants and, of course, the Verizon Center, it’s well worth taking a couple of minutes to glimpse the past.