Smithsonian Institution


National Portrait Gallery Courtyard Renovation & Enclosure

Washington, DC

64,000 sf / 5,946 m2

Best ‘New & Old’ Project, Craftsmanship Award, International Architecture Award

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This courtyard is a gift to the entire nation, as well as the nation's capital. It will enable the Smithsonian to expand its services to all visitors by creating a uniquely beautiful location for exciting events, special programs and quiet contemplation.

—Cristián Samper, Acting Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution


Built in 1836, the neoclassical Old Patent Office Building stands as one of Washington DC’s great landmarks. Originally designed to display inventor’s models submitted with patent applications, it has served many functions over the centuries, including a Civil War hospital and the site of Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural ball. It currently houses two Smithsonian museums, the National Museum of American Art and the National Portrait Gallery. SmithGroupJJR was selected as executive architect and associate design architect with Foster and Partners for a renovation and enclosure project for the storied building’s courtyard.

The design features a dramatic, undulating skylight structure that is entirely self-supporting, placing no loads on the historic building. A sequence of fritted and angled skylight plates allow inviting natural light to fill the courtyard, yet also maintain stringent interior environmental conditions that make the space appropriate for displaying several types of art. It also incorporates large areas of sound absorption within the structural elements, making the courtyard an ideal function space. It has quickly become a new Washington landmark.