THE LONG awaited remodeling to house the priceless collection of the Textile Museum, 2320 S St. NW, is finished, in time for this weekend's International Conference on Oriental Carpets and a remarkable show of Turkman carpets.
The remodeling cost is just under a million dollars, but still far under the estimates for the original plan, which would have added a large building taking up a good bit of the garden space. It isn't sour grapes that has led Andrew Oliver, director of the Textile Museum, to suggest that "we may be as well off as if we could have afforded the new building. I don't know we could have afforded to maintain it."
The Textile Museum began as the home of George Myers, a wealthy collector of textiles. He had the house built by John Russel Pope in 1916, a typical neo-Georgian house, paneled walls and marble floors and a garden door that lines up with the front door, so you gain the garden vista. Shortly after Myers moved in, he realized, as most collectors do, that his collection were overwhelming him, running him out of house and home. So he leased the house next door, the 1908 structure owned by Martha Tucker and designed by the unbiquitous Waddy Wood -- described by some, as "Waddy's least successful building." In 1925 he bought the house and remodeled it as a private museum to show off his collections with a make-shift connection between the two.
No real unified plan had ever been executed to unite the two houses and make a contemporary exhibition space. Though a few years back, Wilkes and Faulkner drew up an ambitious plan for a new building that would have provided a great deal of exhibition space and conservation laboratories. The cost was more than the Textile Museum was willing to spend. So the directors settled on a more modest remodeling of the existing building.
The architectural design of the remodeling is by Conklin and Rossant, a New York firm. William J. Conklin is a Textile Museum board member. William Lipscomb was the contractor. The design is strictly centered on function -- none of your fancy spaces like the Hirshhron, the National Gallery or the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Everything is subordinated to the exhibits. The two-story-high exhibition space is more practical now, if less romantic. The railing between the balcony and the upper space has been closed and so have the garden side windows. Doric pilasters, niches, fake beams and other ornaments appropriate to the age and intentions of the house have been removed. "They may have been ornamental," said Oliver, "but they made our life more difficult when we were installing a show." The result is a blander look, though certainly more functional. The original elaborate plasterwork has been retained in two smaller old galleries, but the fireplaces have had to be closed.
The remodeling was done in two stages: Just completed are the redesigned galleries and library, the part most appreciated by museum visitors. As you come along the hallway into the big space, you see the first of two huge glass-fronted cases, stretching wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling. The second case extends across the back wall of the big gallery. The cases are very much like, though shallower than, the Kevin Roche cases for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Egyptian galleries. They are probably the best possible museum cases. "One advantage," said Oliver, " is that these cases will hold small, fragile and rare textiles without mounting."
Both galleries have a ceiling so full of track lighting it looks like stalactites. On the third floor, the Arthur Jenkins library has been redesigned into one long room with a smaller study area for scholars such as Irene Emery, an 80-year-old textile expert and author who still researches her books there.
Last September, new climate control ("for ourselves and the textiles," said Oliver), wiring, lighting, plumbing, sprinklers, smoke and security alarms, a new fire stairway and other such basic backbone and artery transplants were installed.
The entrance is now through the George Myers house next door. The Myers house, as befits a building by beaux arts architect John Russell Pope, has been little altered. The most drastic change will come when the butler's pantry, with its wooden drainboards, glass-front cabinets and ancient sink, will be remodeled into a new kitchen by Watkins Cabinets. The second floor is now executive offices, and the third floor will be eventually redesigned for storage. Wisely, Oliver and the board retain the paneled living room and reception hall as is. Soon the view from these rooms will be improved with $5,000 worth of landscaping in the garden. Lilo Markvitch's excellent museum shop continues to flourish in the front room. All these rooms will soon be improved with a bequest of furniture.
Money for the renovation has come from Mrs. Joseph V. McMullan, Major General and Mrs. John Ramsey Pugh, the late Frederick R. Fisher, Mrs. Warman Welliver and a $60,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
For the first show, curator Louise Mackie has mounted a magnificent collection of rare Turkman textiles. Today, people are paying as much as $20,000 for one of the Turkman carpet bags, which hung on the walls of the tents to hold personal possessions. The Textile Museum has more inquiries about Turkmans, called "the red rugs" than any others.
There's little variation in the design of these knotted pile rugs from tent to tent, and very slow changes over the thousands of years they have been woven," said Mackie, pointing out the similarities in the 95 pieces from seven different tribes.
Many of the pieces were woven to clothe camels. "The camel is the most modest of animals," Mackie said, citing a pentagonal piece for its back, caps for the kneecap, an applique piece for the neck and the litter for his back. A bride riding on a camel so bedecked would also be covered with textiles.
Many of the textiles were made to hang in the lattice work tents. "They're made like a child's playpen," Mackie said. Not many are prayer rugs. "Prayers were for city people, I suppose because the tribal people didn't have many answered prayers."
The exhibit includes a majority of textiles from the museum, plus loans from museums around the world.