James Renwick was inspired by the Louvre's Tuileries addition in Paris and modeled the gallery in the Second Empire style that was then the height of French fashion. The Renwick Gallery was built originally as a public museum for William Corcoran's private art collection.
Exterior view, around 1861
Renwick's design dramatized the mansard roofs with ornamental iron railings and a pavilion motif. Quoined pilasters decorated the first floor exterior and fluted pilasters on the second floor were designed with crescent pediments.
1861 Corcoran Art Building
The Renwick Gallery was designed in 1859 by the distinguished architect James Renwick Jr., who also designed the Smithsonian's "Castle" and St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. It is one of the most elegant examples of Second Empire architecture in the U.S. The building originally housed the Corcoran Gallery of Art. It was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1965 for use as a "gallery of arts, craft, and design. After renovation, it opened to the public in 1972.
U.S. Quarter Master General staff members on the front steps of the building, 1865
In 1861, construction of the building was interrupted by the Civil War; the U.S. Quarter Master General Montgomery C. Meigs and his staff occupied the partially constructed building from 1862 to 1869.
Grand Salon, around 1874-1899
The building was eventually returned by the government in 1869, and construction resumed for its use as a public art museum. On January 19, 1874, the Corcoran Gallery of Art opened to the public with three rooms: the Hall of Bronzes, the Main Picture Gallery, and the Octagon Room.
Front Façade With Statues, 1880s
In the 1880s, the façade niches were filled with seven-foot statues by the sculptor Moses Ezekiel representing Phidias, Michelangelo, Rubens, Rembrandt, Raphael, Titian, Durer, Leonardo, Murillo, Canova, and Thomas Crawford. Crawford, who created the "Freedom" sculpture that sits atop the Capitol, was the only American artist honored among the famous European artists.
Hall of Sculpture, 1882
In 1874, the Hall of Sculpture and two smaller sculpture rooms opened.
U.S. Court of Claims, 1950s
The U.S. Court of Claims was located in the building from 1899 to 1964. During this time, the skylights were closed and the beautiful Grand Salon was subdivided into two rooms.
Stair Hall, second floor, 1956
In 1956, Congress proposed that the building be razed. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy led the campaign to save the Renwick Gallery as part of her plan to restore Lafayette Square.
"..it is really quite lovely and a precious example of the period of architecture which is fast disappearing. I so strongly feel that the White House should give the example in preserving our nation's past."
–Jackie Kennedy, March 6, 1962, to Bernard L. Boutin, GSA
President Lyndon B. Johnson and Smithsonian Sec. S. Dillon Ripley
President Johnson and Secretary Ripley inspect the Renwick Gallery renovation soon after the building was transferred to the Smithsonian. It had been the Court of Claims Building, May 26, 1965, LBJ Library
Photo by Yoichi Okamoto
Renwick Gallery during renovation, 1967-1972
The Court of Claims moved out of the building in 1964. President Lyndon Johnson transferred the building to the Smithsonian on June 23, 1965 so that it might be returned to its original purpose, "Dedicated to Art." Washington, D.C.-based architect Hugh Newell Jacobson led the interior renovation. The Renwick Gallery, newly named in honor of its original architect, opened to the public in 1972, following the renovation.
Grand Salon, around 1974-1975
"I returned the interiors to Renwick's intent for the gallery, respecting the scale and order of the building."
–Hugh Newell Jacobson
Portal Gates by Albert Paley, at entrance to Renwick museum shop, first installed in 1976.
Octagon Room, 1975
Grand Salon, 2009
In 2000, the Grand Salon was refurbished with a new lighting system in the historic laylight and a color scheme of deep rose and cream. Artworks from the museum's collection are hung salon-style to re-create the elegant setting of a 19th-century collector's picture gallery.
Photo by Ron Blunt
The Renwick Gallery is the premier showcase for American ingenuity and creativity. It has been home to the Smithsonian American Art Museum's craft and decorative art program since 1972. The building was an early addition to historic Washington more than 150 years ago.
Photo by Ron Blunt
Central South Façade
Over the front entrance, the words "Dedicated to Art" are inscribed in stone, symbolizing early aspirations of the nation for a great civilization. Renwick included American influences in his design, which can be seen in the capitals of the Corinthian columns with cornhusks instead of acanthus leaves—a direct reference to the column capitals of the U.S. Capitol building designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Photo by Ron Blunt.