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Preservation Board Acts to Protect Significant Parts of the Corcoran’s Historic Interior from Alterations

Accompanying images can be viewed in the May 2015 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

In a unanimous decision at its April 23, 2015 public meeting, the Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) unanimously voted to landmark the interior public spaces of the former Corcoran Gallery of Art over the strenuous opposition of George Washington University (GWU), the DC Court of Appeals’ appointed new owner of the dissolved Corcoran’s flagship gallery and college of art and design building at 17th & New York Avenue, NW.

Acting at the behest of an application for landmarking from the DC Preservation League DCPL), HPRB, on the recommendation of the District’s Historic Preservation Office (HPO), found that the building’s interior, like its already landmarked exterior, merited designation “for its association . . . with the institution of the [1869-established] Corcoran gallery and [1878] school, their contributions to the culture of the city and nation, and the shows, exhibits and other events that punctuated its history. While the most important spaces were public ones, there are also a boardroom and library that are fine and intact and intimately connected to the history of the administration of the institution.”

The Corcoran Gallery is actually two buildings, both designed by master architects, the first, which faces 17th Street, by Ernest Flagg in the mid-1890s to house the 19th century collection of W.W. Corcoran and fellow donors which had outgrown the original Corcoran Gallery at 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue designed in 1859 by James Renwick, Jr. (and now part of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum).

The second building, designed by Charles Adams Platt in 1925, extended the Flagg building westward along C Street with a further addition directly behind the original building, this for the purpose of housing Corcoran trustee and former Senator W.A. Clark’s extensive art collection — much as it had been housed in his enormous 5th Avenue Manhattan mansion.

The application for this interior landmarking was initiated during a recent period of administrative and management unrest at the Corcoran when the Gallery’s Board of Trustees began considering the sale of its magnificent art collection or, as an alternative, the sale of its historic Beaux Arts-style building (and the Corcoran’s few other remaining real estate assets) and simply moving, or to cut loose the college, downsize the Gallery and move its operation to Alexandria or to some other more affordable District or Washington metropolitan area space.

A decade earlier was the abortive attempt by the Corcoran to raise a District matching grant of $40 million to kickstart an enormous building fund drive for a Frank Gehry designed Bilbao-style addition to its building. It was proposed to be constructed into and on top of the existing structure, obliterating such grand historic spaces as the rotunda and the Clark Landing, two interior spaces that ceremonially connected the Flagg and Platt buildings, and thereby reorienting the Corcoran’s grand stairs, in the infelicitous words of the architect (and designer) at a press briefing unveiling the model for the addition to a role such as that of providing access to caterers for social events at this proposed new destination event site. The building’s grand new entrance would have been reoriented as well to the New York Avenue side of the Corcoran rather than across from the White House on 17th Street. This proposed plan was approved by the HPRB but never carried out as its fund-raising efforts failed.

The subsequent and final results of this consequent collapse of the Corcoran trustee’s nerve and its beleaguered management efforts were played out in a cy pres proceeding in DC Superior Court last year — a process that served to ratify and approve the trustee’s petition for dissolving the Corcoran and distributing its assets — 17,000 works of art and an art conservation endowment — to the National Gallery of Art. All other assets — the college, the renowned Flagg/Platt building, $35 million for restoration and other real estate and endowment funds — to the George Washington University.

The gifting of the Flagg and Platt buildings to GWU were stipulated to be for art exhibition and art college uses only, with the National Gallery assigned a tenancy in the grand, high-ceiling second floor galleries of the Flagg building for the display of fine art from its newly augmented collections — a task for which the exhibition track record of the National Gallery is recognized to be of the highest quality.

In considering the interior designation application, HPO’s staff report observed that master architect “Flagg’s work is most remarkable for its grand sequence of spaces, from entry vestibule through the monumental, columned two story atrium and grand stair serving a variety of galleries on the first floor and soaring rooms on the second. Calculated to show even huge works to their best advantage, the spaces are architectural works of art themselves.”

Flagg’s hemicycle, which resolved the architectural problem of the acute angle of the building at the corner of 17th Street and New York Avenue drew special praise from the HPO staff report, which further noted that it served to connect the gallery to the art college. The report also praised the Platt building addition’s attention to the shape and size of the more intimate, domestic style rooms of its ensemble of galleries on the first floor of the Clark Wing, said to correspond to the rooms of Senator Clark’s New York City mansion where his art collection was previously installed. While the basement level, accessible at grade from C Street and serving as actual first floor access to the Clark Wing, was proposed by DCPL for designation, no mention was made of, in the words of Corcoran Curator Emerita Linda Crocker Simmons, the vast space represented by the building’s subbasement, one containing large studio spaces.

While the thoughtful and discursive HPO staff report attempts to steer a practical and realistic ship of interior landmark designation between the shoals and rocky crags of overly restrictive historic preservation and freewheeling adaptive reuse, the report’s recommendations to the Board come down hard on the side of the DC Preservation League’s recommendation for the landmarking of all interior public spaces. The report eloquently describes the hierarchy of these spaces, beginning with the “immensely tall” front galleries on the second floor along the 17th Street side of the building, “which could be said to be the proper termination of the sequence through the original building that begins at the main entrance.”

The second floor galleries, together with parallel galleries across the atrium balcony, will be used for publicly accessible National Gallery art exhibitions, while GWU will provide public access to the Salon Doré, the Clark Landing, the vestibule, rotunda, atrium, and grand stair. (These were the only spaces recommended by GWU for interior landmark designation.) The remainder of the building will be repurposed, with the approval of HPRB, for College uses.

The report continues with descriptions of the Clark Collection gallery rooms in the Platt-designed Clark Wing, noting that “the second-floor galleries [there] do not have the same clear axial views and flow that the Flagg’s do, but as a group they demonstrate the careful working out of the proportions of each room, so that their heights vary in relation to their length.” These, together with the intimate first floor Clark Wing galleries, which gracefully lead to the Salon Doré, and the boardroom and library, argued the staff report, “are fine spaces representing significant aspects of the institution’s history and development. They should not be excluded just because they may not evoke thee same sense of splendor.”

The motion for approval by HPRB Chair Gretchen Pfaehler of the HPO staff report was adopted unanimously. The key portion of that report dealt with recommended deletions and additions to the DC Preservation League’s application.

Deleted were “the entire basement, which is now carved up with partitions; the four galleries at the southeast corner which have been subdivided into offices; the first floor auditorium in the Hemicycle, where the columns and raked floor are structural, but the remainder of the elements and finishes are modern; the two first floor galleries at the northwest corner of the Atrium, one of which has been altered to serve as an exhibit space for the art school, and the other recently had its window openings sealed with the construction of the abutting office addition; and Gallery 2 in the second floor of the Clark Wing, which has been used for storage for many years.”

HPO also stipulated the addition of the first floor of the main staircase in the Clark Wing and the inclusion of the secondary stair at the north end of the atrium. “This handsomely designed and intact stair,” the report noted, “with marble treads and decorative ironwork, was suggested for inclusion by the property owner’s team.”

The website for the DC Office of Planning provides on-line access for students, the general public, and those simply fascinated with the weeds of DC and federal historic preservation rules, regulations, and legal and regulatory precedents, as well as the extraordinarily informative filings, oral arguments, witness testimony, and HPRB deliberations — including the HPO staff report and recommendations in this precedent-setting interior landmarking designation case.

[Editor’s Note: We first reported on the DC Preservation League’s application filed with the Historic Preservation Office to designate the interior as an historic landmark. See, “Corcoran Gallery Building Abandonment and Sale May be Derailed by Interior Landmark Nomination Filing with City,” InTowner, October 2012 issue pdf, page 1. Of special interest are the vintage photographs accompanying this news report on page 6, as well as the two on the front page; these very much help in understanding the case for interior landmarking.]