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Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (Corcoran Gallery of Art)

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Corcoran Gallery of Art
1859–1861, James Renwick, Jr. 17th St. and Pennsylvania Ave. NW
  • Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (Corcoran Gallery of Art)

The only building in the city to be named in honor of its architect is the Smithsonian's museum for the decorative arts, originally designed as the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Renwick and his patron, banker William W. Corcoran, traveled together to Paris in 1854 to study museums as well as contemporary French architecture and to visit the 1854 International Exposition. Visconti and Lefuel's additions to the Louvre courtyard (1852–1857) revived interest in the architecture of earlier sections of the same building. Renwick's composition was a simplified and composite adaptation of the entire Louvre complex, with a central pavilion capped with a mansard roof of curved profile and corner pavilions with straight-sided mansards, the whole gathered together under a secondary, sloping mansard roof. All of the second-story exhibition rooms were skylit. The elaborately designed and sculpted principal floor, with double columns and pilasters carrying a projecting entablature, steps forward to frame what were once niches set into the wall surface. These contained 8-foot-tall statues of great European artists and American sculptor Thomas Crawford (their names are carved in the belt course). Here, and in the choice of the sculptural decoration of swags, roundels, and rich floral motifs in segmental as well as triangular pediments, Renwick turned to Pierre Lescot's original facade of the Louvre (1546). Renwick's use of brick walls with Aquia sandstone trim derived from another Parisian model, the Place des Vosges (1605).

The resulting building exemplifies nineteenth-century American eclecticism and was the first major French-inspired structure to be erected in this country. One specifically American feature is difficult to see from the ground; carved corncobs nestle in the acanthus leaves of the Corinthian capitals. After serving as government offices and even a warehouse, the building returned to its original function when it was renovated by Hugh Newell Jacobsen between 1967 and 1972. Only three interior spaces approximate their original state: the massive staircase at the entrance, the grand salon encompassing the entire width at the back of the building (furnished and hung with paintings as it originally was), and the octagonal room in the center front, which was designed to display Hiram Powers's Greek Slave, the most famous of American nineteenth-century sculptures.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee
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Citation

Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee, "Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (Corcoran Gallery of Art)", [Washington, District of Columbia], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/DC-01-WH15.

Print Source

Buildings of the District of Columbia, Pamela Scott and Antoinette J. Lee. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, 164-165.

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