Renwick Gallery

photo by: Ron Cogswell, Flickr

December 1, 2015

The Renwick Renewed: Inside the Gallery’s Renovation

  • By: Katharine Keane

After a two-year, comprehensive renovation, the Renwick Gallery, home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s contemporary craft and decorative art program, reopened on November 13, welcoming over 20,000 guests in the first weekend alone.

Commissioned by philanthropist and art collector William Corcoran and designed in 1858 by architect James Renwick Jr.—also known for his design of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City—the Renwick, formerly the Corcoran Gallery of Art, became the first purpose-built art gallery in the United States. Inspired by Napoleon III’s renovations of the Louvre in Paris, Renwick incorporated architectural details that would become iconic of the Second Empire style: pavilions, mansard roofs, and double columns.

The gallery opened to the public following the end of the Civil War in 1874, but in 1899 became the new home of the Court of Federal Claims. By the 1950s the old Corcoran gallery building was on the verge of demolition until First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy interceded in 1962.

In a letter to the head of the General Services Administration she wrote, “It may look like a Victorian horror; but it is really quite a lovely and precious example of the period of architecture which is fast disappearing…I hope you will use all of your influence to see that this building is preserved and not replaced with a few trees.” The Renwick Gallery opened as a member of the Smithsonian Institution in 1972.

Under the supervision of architecture firm Westlake Reed Leskosky and contracting firm Consigli Construction Co. Inc., the Renwick now boasts restored wood and plaster decorative moldings, restored windows, the original vaulted ceilings hidden during 20th century renovations, improved LED lighting, and energy-efficient technology. Thanks to innovative technologies such as 3D printing, digital modeling, and laser scanners used to measure the rooms with precision, Consigli was able to outfit the historic structure with modern display capabilities.

“A lot of the artists wanted to suspend [their pieces] from the ceiling,” explains project manager Eric Bottaro. “We had to incorporate all sorts of structural steel into the ceiling spaces and tiny crawl spaces above and below the rooms so that they could support the artwork without actually changing how the room looked.”

By lightening the color palette of the National Historic Landmark building’s interior, museum director Betsy Broun hoped both to respect and modernize the space.

“It felt as if it was time to embrace our own time and our own century,” Broun explains. “We want this to feel like a 21st-century destination.”

Thanks in part to a Save America’s Treasures grant from the National Park Service and a 50/50 public-private partnership, the gallery was able to compile $30 million to fund the project. As a part of its reopening celebration, the Renwick is currently hosting installations by contemporary artists for the exhibition, “WONDER.” The exhibition will remain open through early summer when the permanent collection will be reinstalled and displayed starting July 1.

To learn more about the Renwick and its history, read recently published American Louvre: A History of the Renwick Gallery Building by Charles J. Robertson.

Katharine Keane is a former editorial assistant at Preservation Magazine. She enjoys getting lost in new cities, reading the plaques at museums, and discovering the next great restaurant.

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