According to a summary of a plan by a construction estimating firm with museum experience, the Corcoran needs a range of renovations, including a new cooling unit ($1.5 million) and a boiler ($400,000), a new skylight roof over a wing that was not re-roofed during a project a few years ago ($11 million) and a museum-wide fire-suppression system that would use high-pressure technology to produce a water vapor that would not damage paintings ($28 million).
The scope of the four-year project paints a portrait of a 115-year-old museum building in which critical maintenance has been deferred for decades. It also suggests an institution with ambitious — and expensive — goals.
Broadly speaking, the cost per square foot appears higher than recent large Smithsonian renovations. However, few projects are perfectly comparable; the Smithsonian projects, for example, have involved newer buildings.
“The numbers don’t stagger me,” said David Greenbaum, an architect and vice president with the SmithGroupJJR in the District who specializes in cultural projects, including Smithsonian renovations. He was part of a team of restoration architects who helped the Corcoran a decade ago, when an expansion designed by Frank Gehry was planned.
“The numbers can be fairly high-reaching if the scope of the work is very intensive,” added Greenbaum, who has not seen the new report.
“That’s a very big number,” said David Levy, former director of the Corcoran who resigned in 2005 when the board of trustees killed the Gehry project. “Without knowing the scope of what they have in mind, it’s very difficult to speak to it.”
He added: “My instinct would be you could do it for less. But I can see how you’d get to that number if you looked at everything that needed to be done.”
Nonetheless, some line items might spark debate. For example, Smithsonian museums have not invested in building-wide vapor sprinkler systems. Instead, they use less expensive water sprinklers designed for museums. The Phillips Collection also has a museum-quality water sprinkler system. The National Gallery of Art uses a mist system only in certain areas.
The Corcoran has sprinklers in only parts of the building, and they are dated.
“If we’re going to sprinkle the building, let’s sprinkle it in a way that has as low a probability of destroying the art as possible,” said Fred Bollerer, director of the museum. “If there’s just a marginal difference in price, I would rather go with something that is really state of the art.”