WASHINGTON — IT took 800 boxcars of rose-white marble from Tennessee to build the National Gallery of Art on the site of a former mattress factory and wood lot. The Gallery, a 785 ft. by 303 ft. gift to the nation, was art collector and former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon's ``stately pleasure dome'' decreed for art, to borrow a line from Coleridge. Mellon also chose the designer, the talented classical architect John Russell Pope, who had studied at both the American Academy in Rome and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Andrew Mellon chose Pope at the peak of his career; he had already put his seal on the National Archives Building (the most important buil ding in the Federal Triangle), as well as the Jefferson Memorial, the Medieval Hall of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the Tate Gallery and British Museum in London.
An architectural exhibition titled ``John Russell Pope and the Building of the National Gallery of Art,'' will run through July 7 in Pope's West Building in conjunction with the ``Art for the Nation'' 50th Anniversary show in the I.M. Pei-designed East Building.
National Gallery director J. Carter Brown traces the difficulties Pope encountered in realizing his design for a single block stretching from 4th to 7th streets. Sketches by Pope in the show illustrate, says Mr. Brown, ``his definitive scheme for the gallery, with the domed rotunda at the center, a pair of long sculpture halls on either side.... The Commission of Fine Arts ... was not comfortable with the idea of adding another domed building to the mall. And the commissioners asked Pope to restudy his design, omitting the dome, which Pope was very reluctant to do....'' The architect triumphed.
Andrew Mellon offered both his collection of 132 works of art (including works by Rembrandt, Titian, Raphael, Botticelli, and Van Dyck) and money for the building of a National Gallery to President Franklin Roosevelt at the peak of the Depression in 1936. In 1937 Congress approved its construction and maintenance. Two months later, within a day of each other, Mellon and Pope died. But the basic plan for the building was complete and the work went on. The gallery was dedicated on March 17, 194l.
When it opened, says gallery director Brown, ``Andrew Mellon's original gift of of paintings to the National Gallery was enough to fill about 5 of the 135 galleries.'' Soon, what Brown calls ``the founding benefactors,'' began to fill the galleries with art - great art, as Mellon had stipulated. Brown notes that when the Mellon gift was accepted, ``The understanding was that the private sector would provide the art. And it always has. We have not ever spent a penny of federal funds on our collections.''
Since the gallery opened, architectural views have come full circle. A film on Pope shown in conjunction with the West Building exhibition notes that at the time the building went up, ``rose-white marble and neoclassical grandeur were rapidly becoming fair game for derision.'' It was called by one critic ``a Mausoleum for dead masters,'' and by another, ``The Last of the Romans.'' The years have vindicated those who viewed it as ``pristine, classical, serene,'' as elements of classical architecture appe ar in buildings just built or planned for the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor.
Brown says ``very few would have predicted that people would be looking with new eyes at John Russell Pope today.... The new Market Square [complex] across from Pope's Archives building and not far from the National Gallery is in a style I think Pope would approve of.... It does something I thought I would never see again in my lifetime in Washington: classical columns, fluted, with capitals, and bases, and plinths.... We are in the middle of a revolution.''