The Eyes

The Eyes

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Short Architectural History of the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery

The Renwick Gallery is the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s branch for contemporary craft and decorative arts and is the first purpose-built art museum in the United States. The building is considered one of the first and finest examples of Second Empire architecture in the United States. 

The Renwick building was designed to house the art collection of William Wilson Corcoran, a native Washingtonian and a prominent banker and philanthropist. In 1858, Corcoran engaged the noted architect James Renwick Jr., who had earlier designed the Smithsonian’s Castle in Washington and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, to design a public museum in which to display his art collection. 

Construction of the Renwick building marked an important moment in the cultural history of the United States, as it was the first time a building had been designed expressly as an art museum, and helped to introduce a new style of architecture to Washington and to the nation. 

Renwick was inspired by the Louvre’s newest addition in Paris and modeled the gallery in the Second Empire style that was then the height of French fashion. His design integrated the central pavilion and distinct mansard roofs he saw in France with his own creative interpretation of proportions, details and architectural elements. The result was a building unlike anything else in the United States at the time, popularizing a style that soon spread throughout the country. 

Renwick chose a contrasting palette of materials for the building: Baltimore pressed red brick, brown Bellville sandstone from New Jersey and purple Welsh slate. The interior included a grand flight of stairs to the second floor, which featured a main picture gallery (the Grand Salon) and an “Octagon Room” that was designed for Corcoran’s favorite sculpture. Elegant arched entryways to the galleries echoed the arched windows and front doorway. 

The architect incorporated a whimsical American touch into his design by adding ears of corn among the acanthus leaves of the columns’ capitals, inspired by Benjamin Latrobe’s earlier use of corn in his capitals at the U.S. Capitol. The words “Dedicated to Art” were inscribed in stone above the front entrance. Upon its eventual completion, Sen. Charles Sumner dubbed the building the “American Louvre.”

Known today as the Renwick Gallery, it is the third oldest Smithsonian building. In 1956, Congress proposed that the building be razed. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy successfully led the campaign to save the Renwick building as part of her plan to restore Lafayette Square and in 1965, S. Dillon Ripley, then secretary of the Smithsonian, met with President Lyndon Johnson to request that it be turned over to the Smithsonian. 

It was subsequently dedicated “for use as a gallery of art, crafts and design.” It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, and was designated a National Historic Landmark building in 1971. The Renwick Gallery opened in 1972 as the home of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s contemporary craft and decorative art program. 

The Renwick Gallery, after completing an extensive two-year renovation, reopens to the public Friday, November 13, with carefully restored historic features, entirely new infrastructure, dramatically improved energy efficiency and other upgrades that will make the National Historic Landmark building into a 21st-century destination.

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