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A Storied Gallery

With its colorful history and a touch of whimsy, the Renwick is a singular experience

As you walk up Pennsylvania Avenue a block from the White House, surrounded — but by no means engulfed — by those huge glass-and-stone boxes in which Washington does its business, there is an ornate brick-and-sandstone building in French Second Empire style. With its pilasters and medallions, its arches and mansard roof, its decorative wreaths and railings and other embellishments, the Renwick Gallery is an architectural pastiche, but a delightful one.

I had thought I was rediscovering one of Washington's secrets when I ventured into the gallery, which specializes in American crafts and decorative arts — but no.

"Admittedly, we're off the Mall," said Ellen Myette, the operations administrator of the gallery, "but people who want to get here, get here. In my travels I have found that everyone knows the Renwick, and lots of people tell me it's their favorite museum in Washington."

The Renwick showcases American artists who work in clay, fiber, glass, metal and wood. There's Larry Fuente's whimsical Game Fish, a three-dimensional collage encrusted with yo-yos, dominoes, coins, cartoon figures and other mementos of childhood. Among the wood sculptures by Wendell Castle is the illusionary Ghost Clock, a mind-boggling trompe l'oeil. A recent exhibition, "Glass! Glorious Glass!" drew thousands of visitors. With 56 pieces by 41 artists, including the famed over-the-top glass master Dale Chihuly (Smithsonian, February 1992), the show sprawled through the high-ceilinged ground-floor rooms.

The museum's crowning jewel, however, is its Grand Salon, a gallery extending the length of the building — almost a hundred feet — and recently refurbished to evoke its Gilded Age roots.

As I take my first steps up the massive staircase leading to the gallery, Allen Bassing, public programs coordinator for the Renwick, stops me and asks what I can see of the Grand Salon from the bottom of the stairs.

Nothing, I reply, a bit baffled.

That is the point, he explains. As I climb the stairs, more of the room comes into view and its grandeur unfolds — like a curtain pulling back — revealing a magnificent collection of American art. In the style of the Victorian era, paintings crowd the rose-colored walls, suspended from wires attached to a rail that encircles the room. Standouts among the 170 artworks are three huge, breathtaking Thomas Moran landscapes of Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Canyon, two of them on loan from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The windows in the room are adorned with heavy, hand-dyed damask draperies. Two plush doughnut-shaped couches, called poufs, provide seating. Poufs were very popular in the Victorian era, for keeping wallflowers away from the walls, I guess. In the center of each pouf sits an enormous vase, decorated with eagles, cannon and flags — centennial gifts from France to the United States. Entering the Grand Salon is like stepping into the opulent gallery of a Victorian collector.

Inside and out, the whole building smacks of that gaudy era of superficial grandeur, the pomp and bluster of nouveau riche entrepreneurs. The exterior once was festooned with 11 seven-foot-tall marble statues, "great figures of art," sculpted by one Moses Ezekiel of Virginia. They were established in niches along the facade and sides of the building's second floor. The "great figures" were Phidias, Michelangelo, Rubens, Rembrandt, Raphael, Dürer, Titian, Da Vinci, Murillo, Canova and one American, Thomas Crawford, who designed the statue on the Capitol dome, the bronze doors of the Senate wing and several other local fixtures.

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