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Corcoran Gallery Building Abandonment and Sale May be Derailed by Interior Landmark Nomination Filing with City

By Anthony L. Harvey

Images accompanying this feature can be viewed in the current issue PDF

Opportunities for positive, prospective actions to protect the historic interior spaces of the Corcoran Gallery of Art was provided on October 1, 2012 by the D.C. Preservation League’s filing of a nomination for historic landmark designation of the dramatic interior features and grand open spaces of the Corcoran, endowed by W.W. Corcoran to house the gift to Washington, DC of his large and valuable art collection and the financial resources to operate that gallery and an auxiliary art school.

Corcoran’s first gift of a purpose-built gallery building, now named for its 18th century architectural designer James Renwick of Smithsonian castle fame, presently houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s collections of American crafts and its studio arts and crafts program.

While the nomination of the interior for this historic landmark designation is pending before the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board, no alteration to these purpose-built interior spaces proposed for designation can be made.

This action by the Preservation League follows the recent announcement by the Corcoran’s trustees of its decision to engage the nationally prominent real estate firm CBRE to find a buyer for its historic building and to search for a site in the Washington metropolitan area where they could build, as they characterized it, a so-called modern, sustainable, and affordable downsized Corcoran Gallery of Art.

The League’s filing is also a reminder of the recent action by the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) and the Federal Arts Council to allow a background building to crowd and cantilever over the historic structure or the earlier approval by HPRB of a proposed, destructive intrusion of a huge, swirling Frank Gehry-designed addition that would destructively intrude into the very center of the 1897 building.

This now pending interior landmark nomination includes the proposed designation of portions of all parts of the present Corcoran Gallery of Art building of 1897, including those of its 1925 addition, which was built to house the William A. Clark Collection. That addition, stretching along the E Street, continues the style of the Gallery’s Beaux-Arts, Classical Revival architecture.

The American Institute of Architects’ Guide to the Architecture of Washington, D.C. praises the Corcoran buildings for their “clear articulation of each block, the uncompromising elevations, and the magnificent interior atrium galleries and splendid rotunda [which] show the Beaux Arts tradition at its best.”

The exteriors of this ensemble of city-beautiful building components were accorded DC historic landmark designation in 1971 and subsequently placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The original, 1897 building designed by the prominent New York architect Ernest Flagg has been deemed an outstanding example of the Beaux-Arts, Classical Revival styles of late 19th and early 20th century architecture, and together with the Singer Tower Building in New York City is cited among Flagg’s early architectural masterpieces.

The Corcoran Gallery is reported to have been Frank Lloyd Wright’s favorite Washington building. It was designed specifically to fit the bottom portion of the base of the triangular block fronting 17th Street to the east across from the Ellipse, with north and south sides facing New York Avenue and E Street, respectively, toward 18th Street on the west.

The 1897 building’s monumental 17th Street facade, together with its decorative elements, was further designed to relate to decorative and functional elements of the building’s interior spaces. And in a powerfully argued, eloquently phrased, and lavishly illustrated nomination document, the DC Preservation League lays out a compelling narrative for an interior historic landmark designation of the Corcoran.

Such interior designations are rarely granted, public access being an important consideration. The Corcoran, although technically privately owned by its Board of Trustees, is a Congressionally chartered, non-profit corporation whose assets and endowments are held in trust for the purposes of its charter, which are the furtherance of art and education — Corcoran’s stated intentions being that of celebration of art and of his hope to educate and inspire present and future generations of Americans. Its purpose-built interior spaces were designed and constructed in furtherance of those purposes — in Corcoran’s own words, to be “dedicated to art and used solely for the purposes of encouraging American genius”; it is such as this that is highlighted the Preservation League’s 68-page landmark nomination. []

Among those features and interior elements called out in the document for special recognition are the entrance vestibule that leads to a central atrium floor on the first level with its pair of glass floor panels, these allowing for natural light from the building’s glass roof to reach the studio spaces in the basement on the ground floor level below; the first and second floor exhibition galleries connected by the Gallery’s grand staircase — which rises to an intermediate landing leading through a small rotunda modeled on the Pantheon in Rome to the Clark Collection’s wide, wood-paneled double staircase providing access to galleries on that level at the rear of the building.

The building’s second floor balcony surrounds a central space between two open spaces looking down on the atrium’s north and south atria. Seven gallery rooms were designed to ring the first floor atrium level. These were originally constructed for the exhibition of sculptures, with plaster casts spaced between the columns in the atria for copying by sculpture students in the course of drawing instruction. All but one of these galleries is now used for administrative or sales shop purposes, and the south atrium is now a restaurant. Eight picture galleries on the second floor, designed to exhibit paintings, continue to be used for art exhibitions, with the central space continuing to host receptions, press briefings, and ceremonial events.

The Gallery’s E Street extension — the Clark Wing — was designed by Charles Platt to house Senator William A. Clark’s enormous bequest to the Corcoran; Platt’s design reflects those interior spaces in Clark’s Manhattan mansion which were used to house and display this gifted collection, one which included 200 paintings, a rare late medieval/early renaissance Italian religious triptych, numerous sculptures, textiles, carpets, ceramics, a stained glass window, and the extraordinary gilded paneling and decorations of a luxurious drawing room, called the Salon Doré, from a Parisian mansion which was installed intact in a room constructed to the Salon Doré’s exact measurements (but enlarged for Clark’s Manhattan mansion to accommodate a large ceiling mural from a near-by Parisian mansion of the same 18th Century period).

Clark’s gift also included the funds for construction of this purpose-built wing and an endowment to support the collection. The 1925 Clark bequest led to further private munificence of significant additional gifts to the Gallery, as described in the nomination document. Architect Platt is also well known in Washington for his design of Freer Gallery of Art on the Mall next to the Smithsonian castle.

Interior landmarking is also sought for Waddy Wood’s 1915 remodeling of the interior of the northeast corner of Flagg’s original building — the Hemicycle — converted to an open, two-level auditorium space into a first floor auditorium with a second floor gallery designed for temporary art exhibitions. It greatly improved the auditorium’s acoustics and provided an exhibition space separate from the principal exhibition rooms that could be open in the evenings when the main part of the Gallery was closed. Handsome instructional rooms and artist studio spaces below and behind the exhibition and sculpture drawing areas are also included in the landmark nomination.

The Preservation League’s nomination also cites numerous historic events occurring in the Corcoran’s ceremonial spaces and the importance of its many biennial and special art exhibitions — all again profusely described in the document, and itself presenting an important chapter in a survey of the development of the arts in Washington. Architectural plans and drawings, together with photographic illustrations of the Corcoran’s interiors, complete the 68 page nomination document.

Editor’s Note: For background, see “Possible Abandonment of Corcoran Gallery’s Historic Museum Building and Relocation to Suburbs Deplored,” InTowner, August 2012, PDF page 1.