The Renwick Gallery Joshua Yetman

The restoration of the Renwick Gallery in D.C. to its original state has involved some advanced engineering work.

When contractors tore into the walls of the Renwick Gallery, they found all kinds of unexpected surprises. Liquor bottles that were more than 100 years old. A pair of long-forsaken shoes. A scrap of wood inscribed with the name of a Union Army corporal and a date from 1867.

What workers didn’t expect to find inside the building, once home to the first museum in America, was so much extra construction.   

“We knew that we had one false ceiling to take down. We had a plan to put new ductwork in,” says Eric Bottaro, project manager for renovation at Consigli Construction. “What nobody knew was that, above this false ceiling, there was a second false ceiling. And then a third false ceiling.”

Beyond the cascade of drop ceilings were the original vaulted ceilings—or what was left of them. Parts of the building designed by James Renwick, the great American architect, were a shambles. Historic features of the Second Empire-style building had sustained damage from neglect, water, wear, and pests, plus a low-magnitude earthquake in 2011 that also damaged the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral.

One of the Renwick Gallery’s vaulted ceilings, seen after it was uncovered as a part of the building’s restoration. (Prakash Patel/Consigli Construction)

For the past two years, the Renwick Gallery has been closed for an exhaustive restoration. It’s the first time since the 1970s that the National Historic Landmark building’s had any serious work done. Yet all along, the building’s owners have jury-rigged fixes to the structure. “We were finding tons and tons of band-aids,” Botarro says, referring to halfway renovations and shortcut repairs done over the course of more than 150 years.

The challenge for the Renwick Gallery was three-fold: Part of the effort involved undoing previous additions and alterations in order to bring the building back in line with the original design. The Smithsonian Institution has its own needs, of course, and the restoration would need to account for the back-stage reality of a working museum, from egress and accessibility to environmental controls and mechanicals. And all of the developments would need to be as slight as possible, given the structure’s historic significance and preservation status.

Easier said than done. An original feasibility study called for raising the roof of the entire structure 10 feet in order to make the restoration work.

* * *

Renwick’s building was completed in 1861 as a museum for the art collection of William Wilson Corcoran. It changed hands right away. With the outbreak of the Civil War, the building was requisitioned by the Union Army to be used as the headquarters for the Quartermaster General’s Corps. In 1869, the building was finally returned to Corcoran, a Confederate sympathizer who spent the war years in Europe buying art. After years of work on the interior and the exterior to return it to museum form, the building opened as the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1874.

When Corcoran opened a new, larger Beaux-Arts museum just down 17th Street NW across from the Old Executive Office Building (then the State, War, and Navy Building) in 1897, he sold the Renwick building to the federal government, which used it to house the U.S. Court of Claims. By 1956, the building had long outlived its usefulness to the federal government. Congress moved to raze it. Had it not been for the efforts of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who rescued the Renwick and the Old Executive Office Building as part of her restoration of Lafayette Square, both buildings would’ve met the wrecking ball. S. Dillon Ripley, the venerable Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, convinced President Lyndon Johnson to let the Smithsonian take over the Renwick Gallery in 1965.

The Renwick Gallery (Ron Blunt)

Back in 1861, the Renwick building depended on a coal-fire boiler for its heating needs. With every change in ownership and every upgrade in technology and regulations since the building’s construction, the building’s stewards have edited the structure to suit their purposes. When they added ducts, they added ceilings. When the ducts changed, they added more ceilings.

“Every room has its individual story and had its own requirements that we had to discover and figure out as we were going,” Bottaro says.

The Renwick Gallery was in way worse shape than anyone might have guessed from walking by the building, which sits diagonal to the White House. The entire roof had to be removed and reconstructed. Restoring the museum meant making decisions about what it would look like and how it would work.

Updated palette and gilding in the Renwick interior (Ron Blunt)

For example, the Renwick Gallery selected a neutral palette for the building’s interior. Not in keeping with the rich interiors that fed the Baroque Revival, maybe, but suited to the purposes of a museum devoted to American craft and decorative arts. Still, even the color story isn’t a simple one. The Renwick Gallery restoration team could have sought out the advice of conservators such as EverGreene Architectural Arts, who reconstruct original interior schemes using forensic analysis, according to Roger Chang, director of engineering for Westlake Reed Leskosky, the architecture firm that headed up the restoration.

I think we were able to go actually in a positive direction even with very difficult decisions,” Chang says.

In all, Consigli Construction worked with 47 different subcontractors to execute the restoration, among them Anna Torre-Smith Studios, the artisinal firm tasked with recreating or restoring the building’s decorative elements. These graceful touches required significant physical investment. “We actually added in steel structure where we tied the cornices back to the masonry,” Bottaro says. “They're 100 percent more stable than they ever have been.”

One difficult decision, Chang says, involved the windows, which were in a sorry state. Many of the seals had failed, and the windows did a poor job of regulating light or heat. The team decided to recreate the originals, adding sophisticated security, thermal, and lighting features and pegging the design to a photo of the building from the early 1900s.

Scott Rosenfeld, resident lighting designer for the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery, worked with Tom Gallagher, project director for Westlake Reed Leskosky, to devise a solution to replace all the museum’s lighting with LEDs. Rosenfeld has worked extensively with the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, the Getty Conservation Institute, the U.S. Department of Energy, and other organizations to develop a scheme for providing museum-quality lighting using only LED bulbs. The team worked with manufactures to retrofit halogen fixtures for LEDs, a cheaper option than buying purpose-built LED fixtures.

Leo Villareal’s Volume (Renwick), an LED installation that is part of the museum’s opening exhibition. (Renwick Gallery)

The building’s fatal flaw eventually yielded to new technology as well. The Renwick basements are just 7 feet 10 inches tall from floor to structure, making for a very compressed space for fitting all the infrastructure that typically goes there. There’s almost no plenum, the ceiling space for ductwork you would find in a traditional office building. So the architects couldn’t run mechanicals horizontally.

In order to fit in the piping and ductwork, the contractors brought on another subcontractor, Direct Dimensions, to laser-scan the entire building. The scan provided a faithful representation of the pre-renovation conditions, which they used to virtually model duct-work and mechanicals for the Renwick Gallery. Eventually, the architects concluded that two vertical cores along the Grand Stair originally designed as light wells for ventilation—and long since colonized for mechanicals—would need to be preserved as service columns.

“We really looked at this as a credible puzzle,” Chang says. “We thought about this in as many dimensions as we could. Instead of necessarily trying to go up, why don’t we better utilize the spaces in these light wells, let’s re-stack certain things, let’s reduce our demand as much as possible.”

But the museum made one call too lightly. New LED signage on the exterior of the Renwick Gallery runs in the opposite direction of the imperial poise of Renwick’s stately building. One of the signs is mounted directly over a stone legend that appears under the building’s pediment. The stone inscription reads “DEDICATED TO ART”; the new LED board adds a caret and the phrase “the future of” in a handwritten script so that the legend reads, “DEDICATED TO ^the future of ART” as if it had been copy-edited. Another sign—also just a temporary addition—spells out “Renwick Gallery” in light-up letters.

The goal of most renovation work is usually the opposite of branding. Even for tech-intensive work, like the restoration of the Renwick Gallery, the idea is to hide the fingerprints wherever possible.

“The ultimate goal is for a visitor to see refreshed finishes, two new vaulted ceilings, where they really can focus on the artwork and not so much any of the infrastructure,” Chang says.

Stripping the roof away to restore the ceiling (Prakash Patel/Consigli Construction)
More work on top of the Second Empire–style Renwick Gallery (Prakash Patel/Consigli Construction)
(Prakash Patel/Consigli Construction)
The Renwick Gallery’s Grand Stair, complete with a red carpet designed by Odile Decq. An installation by Janet Echelman can be seen in the Grand Salon on the second floor. (Ron Blunt)
Leo Villareal’s Volume (Renwick) as it appears in the hall over the Grand Stair. A chandelier by Dale Chihuly can be seen hanging in the museum’s Octagon Room. (Ron Blunt)
Another view of Villareal’s Volume (Renwick). Janet Echelman’s 1.8 can be seen suspended just inside the Grand Salon. (Ron Blunt)
The Renwick Gallery’s Grand Salon as it appeared between 1847 and 1899. (Renwick Gallery)
The Renwick Gallery as it appeared in 1918. (Library of Congress)
The Renwick Gallery today. (Ron Blunt)

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