Tuesday, November 10, 2015

​Renovating the Renwick: A project with no easy parts

Βy Rebecca Cooper:

The renovation of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery, which reopens Friday after a two-year closure, had just a few limitations.

The mandate: bring in all new heating and cooling, electrical, lighting and sprinkler systems; replace all the windows; shore up the structure after the 2010 earthquake that shook the region; and restore the original vaulted ceilings that had been covered up by prior, less historically sensitive renovations — all without changing the building’s roofline or interior layout in anyway.

Oh, and do this all to a building built in 1859 that is located in the White House secure zone, which requires 72-hour notice of every delivery and is under constant U.S. Secret Service surveillance.

The $30 million project, which is meant to honor the building’s history while also making the interiors feel more modern, was funded by a 50-50 public-private partnership. It received a $5.4 million lead donation from noted philanthropist David Rubenstein as well as gifts of $100,000 or more from 34 other individuals or organizations.

Two years after the beginning of the renovation, which was spearheaded by the architecture firm of Westlake Reed Leskosky and general contractor Consigli Construction Co., Smithsonian is set to reveal the redesign at 1700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

In some cases, that work is not so much revealed as it is cleverly hidden behind existing walls, in former skylight shafts and in the attic. One good example of that hidden infrastructure? The 100,000 pounds of structural steel Consigli added into the attic above the building’s grand salon — a last-minute request from Smithsonian that will allow the gallery to suspend a possible future work of art weighing more than 80,000 pounds.

The project was often like a puzzle, said Consigli project manager Eric Bottaro: figuring out how to fit modern cooling equipment into tiny spaces in the basement, for example, in order to avoid changing the historic building’s roofline.

Another challenge? Designing historically accurate windows that could also be blast-proof — another Secret Service requirement — and control ultraviolet and moisture exposure to protect the artwork.

The completion of the renovation will mean the reopening of the first building built in the United States specifically to be an art gallery. Closed since 2013, the Renwick Gallery was originally constructed to house the art collection of William Corcoran and is often called the “American Louvre” for its French Second Empire architecture and interior galleries meant to display art suspended on long cables flush with the walls.

Before it ever served as a museum, however, it was commandeered for the use of the Quartermaster General during the Civil War. It later held Corcoran’s collection until William Corcoran's new building — the former Corcoran Gallery and School of Art and Design — was built just down 17th Street. It later served as the U.S. Court of Claims and was slated for demolition before first lady Jacqueline Kennedy intervened. It became a Smithsonian gallery in the 1960s, and received its last major renovation in the 1970s.

The building showed its wear, with plenty of water damage, cracks from the 2010 earthquake and damage to the plaster cornices and other elements. Removing the drop ceilings in some areas revealed large coves that had deteriorated.

The Renwick building's resurgence will also go along with a revamped mission for the gallery, which has traditionally focused on American craft arts. Nowhere is that shift more evident than at the front of the building, where the traditional mantra of the gallery, “dedicated to art,” has been edited to read “dedicated to the future of art” on the sign over the door.

For the reopening, Renwick commissioned “Wonder,” a show featuring enormous installations from nine artists — everything from a 40-foot reclaimed cedar Hemlock tree by artist Janet Echelman to Gabriel Dawe’s textile piece utilizing thousands of strands of embroidery thread. In the gallery’s Octagon Room, a 3-D printed model of Hiram Powers’ “Greek Slave,” which originally sat in the room, now stands.

"Wonder" will remain up until May, at which point the gallery’s permanent collection will be reinstalled.

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