Renwick Ready

Renwick Ready

The Renwick Gallery in Washington, D. C., called the oldest “purpose-built art museum” in the U. S., will reopen to the public on November 13, following a two-year, $30 million renovation.

The event is a highlight of the fall 2015 arts season in Washington. There will be a black-tie gala dinner on November 8, three new books on the museum, and an inaugural exhibition featuring nine prominent contemporary artists.

Then there’s the building itself, which opened in 1863 and was designed in the Second Empire style. With the project’s completion, Washington gains a thoroughly renovated landmark with restored historic features and an entirely new infrastructure that will enable it to continue serving as the home of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s (SAAM) Contemporary Craft and Decorative Arts program.

The 156-year-old building, which stands across from the White House at Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street NW, was saved from the wrecking ball in the 1960s at the urging of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. The original architect was James Renwick, Jr., for whom the building was later named. John Carl Warnecke and Hugh Newell Jacobsen worked on it in the 1960s. Westlake Reed Leskosky is the architectural design and engineering firm for the latest renovations.

“The Renwick Gallery is the first purpose-built art museum in America and an architectural masterpiece. We are delighted to renew this great historic building for the next half-century,” said Elizabeth Broun, the director of SAAM.

Renwick drew architectural inspiration from the Louvre in Paris, Broun noted. “When the building first opened,” she said, “it was hailed as the ‘American Louvre,’ symbolizing the young nation’s aspirations for a distinctive culture.”

“It’s important architecturally because it helped launch the Second Empire style in the United States,” said Charles J. Robertson, deputy director emeritus of SAAM and author of American Louvre: A History of the Renwick Gallery Building, available in December.

As part of the project, contractors removed false ceilings to reveal two long-concealed ceiling vaults on the second floor. They restored the original 19th-century window configuration throughout and repaired original moldings. They upgraded art storage areas, repointed exterior brick, repaired stucco, remodeled restrooms and replaced mechanical systems.

Public spaces are now illuminated entirely with LED lighting. The Grand Stair has a new red carpet by French architect Odile Decq—another sign of French influence in the building.

Of the three books, Robertson’s American Louvre traces the building’s history and innovations. Craft for a Modern World, The Renwick Gallery Collection, by Nora Atkinson, focuses on the permanent collection. On Wonder, by Nicholas Bell, documents the debut exhibition.

The refurbished “Octagon Room” will contain an exhibit about the building’s history.

Wonder, the inaugural exhibition, features installations by Jennifer Angus, Chakaia Booker, Gabriel Dawe, Tara Donovan, Patrick Dougherty, Janet Echelman, John Grade, Maya Lin, and Leo Villareal.