Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum: A Restoration

Architect: James Renwick, Jr.

Construction: Construction of the Renwick Gallery started in 1859 and it opened to the public in 1874. It was designed in the style of ‘Second Empire’ architecture and originally housed the art collection of industrialist William Corcoran. (In the 1870s, the building was called the Corcoran Gallery.) William Corcoran’s collection was one of the county’s largest and most revered. The museum, upon opening, was considered the American Louvre for its grandeur and unparalleled art collections.

In 1956, Congress considered razing the building, which by then housed the United States Court of Claims, but First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy stepped in and led a successful campaign to save the building from destruction.

Jacqueline Kennedy reviews architectural elevations of the Renwick Gallery, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

Jacqueline Kennedy reviews architectural elevations of the Renwick Gallery, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

The structure was later gifted to the Smithsonian Institution and now functions as a museum dedicated to contemporary craft and decorative arts. In 2013, the Smithsonian announced a two-year renovation. The work was successfully led by the renowned architecture firm Westlake Reed Leskosky. (Renovations of this scale had not been completed on the structure since 1972.) The $30 million construction costs were funded through public and private support, including the generosity of David M. Rubenstein, lead donor. The building will open again to the public on November 13, 2015.

Landmark Status: The Renwick Gallery was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969 and was designated a National Historic Landmark building in 1971.

Location: Washington, DC, across the street from the White House.

Renovation: Renovation of the building began December 2013 and took a little under two years to complete. Renovations included the removal of dated drop ceilings to reveal original and long-concealed vaulted ceilings, the restoration of the building’s original window profile, repair of original wood and plaster decorative molding, brick repointing and stucco repair and overall lighting and structural improvements.

Process of the Restoration

Construction photographs courtesy Consigli Construction Co., Prakash Patel Photography

Nicolas R. Bell, the Fleur and Charles Bresler Curator-in-Charge of the Renwick Gallery stated that shortly after the Smithsonian Institution “closed the building for renovation, we realized that the most valuable object we have is the building itself.” It is clear, in its renovation that the Smithsonian has gone to great lengths to preserve and protect this valuable and important structure. We can’t wait to visit in November when its door re-open to the public.

Building Restored

Exterior photograph, Ron Blunt

Exterior photograph, Ron Blunt