A Storied Gallery

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

The Renwick
The Renwick Wikimedia Commons

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.

William Wilson Corcoran, a very prosperous Washington banker and philanthropist, commissioned the gallery in 1858 to house his collection of paintings and sculptures. Corcoran took the architect, James Renwick, Jr., to Europe with him to search out likely models for the building, and they both fell in love with the Tuileries addition to the Louvre. Renwick Americanized the French Renaissance design by substituting ears of corn and tobacco leaves for the traditional acanthus leaves atop the columns. The building was Washington's first public art gallery.

No sooner was the gallery finished than the Civil War began. On August 22, 1861, the Union Army seized the building to use as a uniforms and records warehouse. Not until 1869, well after the war's end, did the U.S. government return the place to Corcoran, who promptly sued for his back rent. After a $250,000 restoration, the building opened as an art gallery in 1874.

Corcoran, a Southern sympathizer, had sat out the Civil War in Europe and felt the need to reinstate himself with the local society. He decided to hold a great benefit ball to raise money to complete the Washington Monument, stalled at about one-third its planned height since the 1850s for lack of funds.

It was a great ball, all right. Hoping to add bright color and song to the festivities, cages of canaries were hung from the 40-foot ceiling of the Grand Salon. But the canaries were too near the gas jets that were used to light the room, and the birds all died as haute Washington chattered and clinked glasses beneath them. The affair cost so much that it never did produce any net profits.

The Great Hall of Sculpture, which once graced the first floor, was crowded with plaster-cast copies of statues — Greco-Roman nudes for the most part. Respectful of Victorian sensibilities, the hall had separate visiting hours for men and women. On one occasion, when Hiram Power's female nude, The Greek Slave, was exhibited at the museum before a mixed audience, it caused a scandal, Bassing told me during my recent visit. Washington was aghast: ministers thundered from pulpits, readers wrote furious letters to the local newspaper.

I asked Bassing if the building had ghosts or spirits, figures you might see flitting from the room out of the corner of your eye. The closest he could come was a wake.

It seems that the author of the song Home, Sweet Home, John Howard Payne, had died in Tunis and was buried there. Corcoran was incensed; certainly the author of the celebrated piece should be buried in his own country. So the philanthropist had the body exhumed and returned to Washington, where it was reburied after a proper wake in Corcoran's great building.

By 1890 Corcoran's collection had outgrown the gallery, and the museum's trustees erected the present Corcoran Gallery of Art two blocks away on 17th Street. The paintings were moved out in 1897, and two years later the U.S. Court of Claims moved in. Then that, too, overflowed the premises with its stacks of files and departed in 1964.

Slowly deteriorating, the building had been targeted for demolition. But just in time, in 1962, it was rescued by President and Mrs. Kennedy, who were already involved in a project to restore the Federal-style houses fronting Lafayette Square, opposite the White House. In June 1965 the Smithsonian requested and was granted the building to be used as a "gallery of arts, crafts and design." Officially renamed the Renwick Gallery, it became a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Restoration took another six years or so, and the gallery was finally reopened to the public in January 1972. Since then it has proved a most versatile site for many arts, including lectures, dance performances and concerts. The Grand Salon, it turns out, is acoustically perfect and has been used by the Smithsonian Chamber Orchestra for recording sessions.

Surprisingly, the opulence of the Grand Salon and the exhibitions of contemporary crafts work well together.

"A walk through the Renwick proves that the magnificent Grand Salon can coexist in harmony with fine craft," said Kenneth Trapp, the Renwick's curator in charge. "The building itself is beautifully crafted; it is decorative art. And the Grand Salon falls out as a sort of separate space, but very sympathetic."

Some wonderful things have been exhibited here: ceramics by the great Peter Voulkos, Ed Rossbach's fiber work, Harvey Littleton's glass, Sam Maloof's furniture. And all of these artists have won Masters of the Medium awards from the James Renwick Alliance, a museum support group. Albert Paley, also an award winner, designed Portal Gates, an art nouveau work in steel, brass, copper and bronze, for the entrance to the museum shop. It has since been moved to an exhibition space on the second floor.

The museum shop, featuring work by American craft artists, is so outstanding that some people who have sold work there have been known to claim that they were "exhibited at the Renwick Gallery."

"The buyers cover the craft fairs pretty well," remarked Dorrie Pagones, the manager of the shop.

The store offers only American-made craft items, and generally something that's related to the show of the moment. During the glass show, a lot of jewelry and glass was on sale. During the Shaker home furnishings show, the offerings were baskets, furniture and dollhouse miniatures. When I stopped by, there was some unusual leather work by Deborah Einbender from Portland, Oregon, consisting of faces molded in leather and fashioned into purses, masks and cases. Also on display were some colorful rugs intended for wall hangings; they were crafted by some women from Quantico, Virginia, who operate under the title "Three Chicks Hooking."

For an exhibition of quilts by Amish and African-American artists, which opens in October, the museum shop is stocking up on quilts, throws and pillows — handmade items befitting the Renwick's extraordinary exhibitions of the finest in American arts and crafts.

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