By Lauren Linhard
ArtsPost Staff Writer
The National Portrait Gallery looks out at today’s Penn Quarter. Modern and bustling, the area houses the International Spy Museum, The National Museum of American Art, and the Verizon Center. So much more than a tourist trap, the quarter is defined by decades of history and culture. The “Glimpse of the Past: A Neighborhood Evolves” exhibition documents that evolution, from the late 1800s to what you see today.
The exhibit is a collection of photographs chronicling the changes around the old Patent Office Building. The photos were donated by various organizations including the D.C. Preservation League, the Library of Congress and The Historical Society of Washington. Each wall of the Allan J and Reda R Riley Gallery is dedicated to a different part of the neighborhood: F Street, 9th Street, G Street, and 7th Street. The title wall features a series of photographs and captions narrating the Patent Office’s transition to The National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art.
Though it initially seems a brief walk-through, the exhibit becomes a timely reminiscence as families from the area point out pictures to their children. A strong sense of Washington pride echoes in the gallery. “Look,” said one father to his daughter, “this is what the metro use to look like.” Another mother pointed to a picture saying “This is where we live! This is Washington.” There is an obvious pleasure at having an exhibit dedicated to home.
The F Street and 9th Street wall gives a before-and-after account of the area. It describes the modernization program, led by Alexander R. Shepherd, the head of the Board of Public Works. By the 1920s the surrounding neighborhood was thriving with restaurants, department stores and entertainment. This section also includes photos narrating the history of the Masonic Temple on F Street, Velati’s candy store on the corner of 9th and G, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Library.
The G Street and 7th Street wall depicts the gradual decline and eventual rise of the Penn Quarter. This section documents the five days of rioting in 1968 after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The photos of the riots are paired with photos of the crumbling Hecht Company building. The display marks the development of the Metro in 1976 and the opening of the Verizon Center in 1997 as landmark moments in the revival of the district.
The exhibit includes an interactive component featuring photos taken by local artist Chris Earnshaw. He focuses on the area during the 1960s and 1970s.
The gallery is connected to the second-floor balcony, encouraging visitors to gaze out at the current Penn Quarter. For those who aren’t fluent in the history of Washington, the ability to contrast the before-and-after of the exhibit and the view outside enhances the historical message. There is tangible evidence that the modern world seen from the balcony directly reflects the history and culture inside the gallery.
The “Glimpse of the Past: A Neighborhood Evolves” exhibit will be showing at the National Portrait Gallery till January 2012. The history, culture and admission is free.