History of The Renwick Gallery Building

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  • NARRATOR: The Renwick Gallery has a truly remarkable history. Few people know that it was actually the first building in America that was constructed for the purpose of being an art museum. It was the eighteen fifties and a collector named William Corcoran began to think that America was surging ahead in the area of commerce and industry but lagging far behind in the area of culture and civilization.

    So he gave up his banking job and decided to build an art museum for his private collection. He hired James Renwick to be the architect. Renwick was pretty much known for doing church like buildings, chapels, and the Smithsonian Castle but they both went to Paris in 1855 and they saw the new pavilions on the Louvre which just debuted a very fancy new style that came to be called the Second Empire style but it was characterized by all kinds of fancy ornamentation.

    They brought that style back and made their new gallery of art into the most forward-looking building in the city of Washington at the time. When the building was being built it was being referred to as the American Louvre. They even chipped in stone over the front doorway the words dedicated to art and they situated the building opposite what they called the president’s park, today we would say the White House.

    It was largely constructed in 1859 they were still working on the interior in 1861 when the Civil War broke out, but the proximity to the President’s House meant it was immediately seized for the war effort. He didn’t get the building back until 1869 and when he did, he renovated it as a museum again, finally it opened as a museum in 1874 until Corcoran outgrew it.

    It then went into federal service as a court. It was a site for the Court of Claims and by the nineteen fifties it had become quite dilapidated and shabby so Jack Kennedy when he was president in 1962 he signed the order to demolish the gallery and to build a steel and glass office tower in its place.

    He had not counted on his wife however and First Lady Jackie Kennedy was of course of French extraction. She has spent her junior year abroad in Paris and she recognized that the architecture of the building was distinguished French in derivation so she set to rescue it and sure enough before the end of 1962 she had saved it from wreckers ball.

    A few years later it was given to the Smithsonian renovated and opened in 1972 as the Renwick Gallery, a branch museum for the Smithsonian American Art Museum dedicated to crafts and decorative arts and the only art museum in America to be named for its architect.

    The Renwick Gallery is home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum's program of contemporary craft and decorative arts. The Renwick building, a National Historic Landmark, is the first built expressly as an art museum in the United States, and is considered one of the first and finest examples of Second Empire architecture in America. Elizabeth Broun, The Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, walks us through the building's incredible history on the occasion of its 2015 opening after a 2-year renovation.