Back to its Roots: The Renovation of the Freer Gallery of Art
With freshly painted galleries, exposed terrazzo floors, spotless limestone, and a brand new HVAC system, the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is ready to open its doors after a year and a half of renovations.
“The building [built between 1916 and 1921] is very Western and Classical in design, but it has references that connect to Asian design too,” explains Richard Skinner, the Freer | Sackler Museums of Asian Art's lighting designer who oversaw the renovation that kicked into high gear in January 2016. The Smithsonian Institution’s first art museum, the Freer's collection was donated by Charles Freer, a railroad-car manufacturer from Detroit who amassed impressive pieces of art from Asia and the United States. Both the Freer and its sister gallery, the Sackler, display Asian art, but the Freer also has a collection by American artist James McNeill Whistler.
The Freer is unusual in some ways. The main corridors are vast, with tall groin-vaulted ceilings and expansive floor-to-ceiling arched windows that give patrons a glimpse of the courtyard outside. “Freer wanted the visual of going into the galleries and then coming out and seeing nature before going into the other galleries,” explains Karen Sasaki, head of design and publications for the Freer | Sackler.
And though about 720 objects are on display, the Freer has around 27,000 in its collection. Charles Freer, frustrated by the many “Temporarily off display” or “On loan" signs at other museums, included in his bequest to the Smithsonian that the Freer collection never be loaned out. If a visitor is eager to see the collections not on display, the museum opens its art storage to the public by appointment.
The renovation was as carefully planned as the original building design. The Smithsonian's Architectural History & Historic Preservation Division worked with the Freer to identify appropriate methods for cleaning stone and sourcing materials that were consistent with the original building fabric.
Parts of the renovation were challenging due to design overhauls to the museum in the 1980s. The terrazzo-floored galleries, for example, were completely covered in carpet glued directly to floor. Plywood and drywall covered the original plaster walls and slate baseboards. The added baseboards were glued to the slate, rendering it all but impossible to save. To bring the gallery spaces back to their original appearance, the museum installed new baseboards made of black quartz, which is more durable than slate but looks similar to the original.
“An enormous effort was spent in ripping up the carpets, stripping the glue, grounding down a thin layer of the terrazzo, and then re-polishing and re-grouting the floors,” notes Skinner.
The carpets and walls may have been outdated, but the heating and cooling system was even more so. Originally, the building cooled in the summer through a system of vents near the gallery ceilings that would draw hot air out of the building through the attic. Shades in the attic controlled incoming natural light that lowered the temperature a few degrees. A water jet system cleaned and humidified the air brought in from the outside. This was advanced for 1921, but outdated and inefficient compared to modern HVAC systems.
While the Freer closed in early 2016, work had been going on for a year. Without impacting the public areas, crews replaced equipment behind the scenes while the museum prepared five temporary art storage rooms and exhibit galleries for the artwork once the building’s AC was turned off. For the 11 months that the AC was switched off, two temporary air handling units placed outside pumped air into the building. The museum built temporary ductwork from the attic and an airlock and dedicated air handling unit just for the iconic Peacock Room, since dismantling it and moving it to storage was impossible.
While so much of the renovation was for practical purposes, the mechanical upgrades are unobtrusive and artful in their execution. The new HVAC system, for example, uses the original cast grille work found throughout the museum.
“There’s one or two vents that were added discreetly, but there’s virtually no penetrations that change the visual appearance in the galleries,” says Skinner.
While work continued, Sasaki and curators focused on developing a neutral palette for the galleries. Each collection is now color-coded by the color of the walls. “It’s one of the clues that you’re moving into another area,” she explains.
The curators and a label writing specialist created new labels with eye-catching headlines and shorter text that capture and keep the attention of museum-goers.
A visitor browsing the museum's collections may see an Islamic jar side by side with an American painting in one gallery room, which at first may seem confusing, but it was thoughtfully planned. “Freer saw the beauty in [two disparate objects] being together. He could see the comparisons of form, shape, and texture,” notes Sasaki.
One of the most satisfying parts of the renovation, she says, was seeing the Freer returned to what it was. “It was an a-ha feeling of seeing the grandeur of it.”
Skinner echoes her. “You can now see the original intention of the designers. A lot can be said for the dark floor. The baseboard pulls your eyes in ways that I, personally, have forgotten.”
Starting in October 2017, the public can see the collection—and the museum itself—through Charles Freer’s eyes.