The Making of a Museum

The beautifully conceived Beaux Arts building by architect Jules de Sibour, which now houses the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was once a grand apartment building. The six apartments in the McCormick Apartment Building each had 11,000 square feet of living space, 21 rooms, and six fireplaces. In present day Washington, a 2000 square foot apartment is considered very large, so these apartments were downright palatial in comparison. There were grand salons and servants’ quarters, and the tenants included, at various times, hostess Perle Mesta, Robert Woods Bliss of Dumbarton Oaks ,and Andrew W. Mellon, the multi-millionaire financier and art collector from Pittsburgh. One other inhabitant of the building was the British art collector, Baron Joseph Duveen, who was knighted in Great Britain because of the great many art masterpieces he donated to museums in his home country. His immense drawing rooms were filled with art treasures, and he and Mellon soon became friends. Lord Duveen was also a master salesman, who was able to drive up the prices of his own collections by his persuasive sales techniques. When Lord Duveen visited Mellon’s apartment, he would praise Mellon’s own paintings with great eloquence, and Mellon would say, “Lord Duveen, my pictures never look so good as when you are here.”

When Lord Duveen decided he wanted to sell the art collection to his friend, he gave Mellon the key to his apartment while he took off for a long ocean voyage. Mellon spent many happy hours in his friend’s apartment, and, when Duveen returned, Mellon bought the entire corpus and then set out to find a home for his growing personal collection.

This collection was a part of the cornerstone for the National Museum of Art, which Andrew Mellon gifted to the nation so that its capital city could have a museum to rank with the great galleries of Europe. Mellon chose John Russell Pope to design the neoclassical building, and, as he dedicated more and more pieces of art to the gallery, other collectors and art patrons stepped forward to contribute their collections to the museum-in-progress. This process has continued since the dedication of the building in 1939, right up to the present day. In 1978, the gallery was expanded with the I.M. Pei-designed East Wing, and today the galleries hold a monumental treasure of art works, along with visiting exhibits from all over the world.

Andrew Mellon never lived to see the museum completed. He was diagnosed with cancer when the project began, but he used all of his remaining strength and time to see that construction began. His museum is probably the only one of its prestige and magnitude in the world that is completely free to the public. Kudos to the vision and magnanimity of Andrew W. Mellon, and thanks, too, to his neighbor Lord Duveen.

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