Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Published by at under Washington DC

From the Blair-Lee House, walk west on  Pennsylvania Ave. to the corner of 17th Street NW.   The ornate red brick building with intricately carved sandstone trim and distinctive slate 2nd Empire style mansard roof can’t be missed.

It’s the Renwick Gallery, the Smithsonian museum dedicated to American decorative arts.

It’s fabulous, inside and out.  Plan to go in.  Admission is free and it’s open daily, 10-5:30.

Designed by New York architect James Renwick, whose work includes St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the Smithsonian Castle on the Mall (See East Mall/Washington Mall App), it was designed in 1859 for William Wilson Corcoran, wealthy banker and art collector. The 2nd Empire style building, popular in Paris at the time, was to house a museum for Corcoran’s private collection.

There are multiple 2nd Empire sculptural details carved on the façade – garlands and wreaths of foliage; a bronze medallion bearing the likeness of William Corcoran on the pediment under the center roof. Carved beneath it: “Dedicated to Art.”  Hard to miss: the unusually large lion head keystone over the front door.

Interestingly, the architecture is not all pure 2nd Empire. Renwick paid homage to American architectural style in the red brick exterior and column capitals carved in tobacco and corn.

The museum is intimate inside. Its changing exhibits of American craft objects and decorative arts highlight the work of artists from the 19th century through the present.  Walk up the grand staircase to the elegant rose-hued 2nd floor Grand Salon – hanging on the walls floor to ceiling is a spectacular collection of paintings.

It’s unusual for a museum to be named for its architect – a choice with an interesting story.

By all rights, the house should be named the Corcoran House as it was designed for William Wilson Corcoran to house his personal art collection of painting and sculpture.  The outbreak of the Civil War disrupted his plans.

Sympathetic to the southern cause, Corcoran lived in Europe throughout the war.  In his absence, the federal government seized the empty building for the Union Army for offices and for storing records and uniforms. In 1869 the damaged building was returned to Corcoran who spent five years repairing it to exhibit his collection. It opened to the public in 1873 as the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

In 1897, when its collection outgrew the building, the Corcoran moved to a new building on 17th Street (Site #37), and the lovely 2nd Empire building was sold to the federal government for use as the U.S. Court of Claims, which remained there for 60 years.

In the 1960s, the dark days of the Lafayette Square, the Renwick, along with other historic structures in the neighborhood, was scheduled for demolition.  Looking at the exquisite building today, it’s hard to believe that would happen. But, it almost did.  It was rescued by the Smithsonian.

After extensive restoration of the once spectacular interior, it re-opened in 1972 as a museum focusing on American craft, part of the Smithsonian’s larger American Art Museum on the Mall.

Naming the museum posed a dilemma.  There was already one Corcoran Gallery of Art (Site #37).  The Smithsonian chose to honor the building’s architect, James Renwick, for yet another of his masterpieces.

Telephone: 202-633-7970


Address: 1661 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, Washington D.C

Directions from Current Location


The above image of the Renwick Gallery is courtesy of AgnosticPreachersKid and is partially provided by Wikipedia available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License. Click here for original source.

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