The Renwick Gallery stands across from the home of Washington’s most famous inhabitants, a hidden gem in plain sight on the cusp of Lafayette Square. Many unknowing tourists enter in pursuit of public bathrooms; they leave after seeing Larry Fuente’s “Game Fish.” The Smithsonian announced this week that the small gallery dedicated to American decorative arts and crafts will close its doors for a massive renovation in early 2014.
The Renwick has become an increasingly popular destination — it hosted a record 175,000 visitors in 2012 — and is in need of structural renovations to accommodate the foot traffic. The two-year project will be the first renovation of the museum in 40 years and will restore historic features of the 154-year-old building.
“Most of the infrastructure systems were built in 1968 and 1972,” said Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “We want to renew the building for the next 40 years.”
Plans for renovation are in the early stages, but Broun says the Smithsonian hopes to push the gallery into the 21st century while preserving its historical character. One goal is to make the Renwick the first all-LED illuminated museum in the United States. The gallery says LED lighting will reduce energy costs by as much as 70 percent.
The Smithsonian selected the Westlake Reed Leskosky architecture firm to lead the renovation. Preliminary plans include updates to infrastructure and the heating, plumbing and security systems, as well as wireless access throughout the building to enhance mobile accessibility. The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1971, so the renovation will not alter the structure or facade of the building.
“It will look very much the same,” Broun said of proposed changes to the structure. “We are legally prohibited [from] substantially altering the historic structure. We want to honor the historical significance.”
The renovation will be funded equally by public and private funds. In 2011, the National Park Service awarded a $335,000 grant for the impending renovation. The Smithsonian has declined to offer the exact budget for the renovation, since the construction bid process has not begun yet.
“It is still very early in the project, but we’re hoping it won’t take two years,” Broun said. “We’ll define when we plan to close and reopen more precisely in the next year.”
The building has a history of high-profile renovations. Built in 1859 by James Renwick Jr., the structure was originally built as Washington’s first public museum that would house William Corcoran’s private collection of European and American art. His collection quickly outgrew the small space and moved down the street, and the Federal Court of Claims moved into the building.
In 1956, Congress proposed that the building be torn down, but first lady Jacqueline Kennedy led the campaign in the early 1960s to save the building as part of a revitalization of Lafayette Square. The building became a Smithsonian museum in 1965, dedicated to crafts and design. It is among the Smithsonian’s oldest buildings, and one of the most prominent examples of French Second Empire style in Washington. Renwick modeled it after the Louvre’s Tuileries addition. At the time of its creation, many referred to it as “The American Louvre.”
The renovation comes amid an American handicraft revival, spurred in part by do-it-yourself industry. Along with the museum’s growing foot traffic, gallery officials have noticed a shift in the ages of its visitors. The Renwick has developed programs that appeal to young professional Washingtonians. Two years ago, the museum started “Handi-hour,” an after-hours party that combined hand-crafted beers with do-it-yourself crafting.
“Young people have seized on crafts as more than a leisure activity,” Broun said. “Crafting fever is the reason we want to make sure [the building] will be ready. We don’t think [crafting] is a two-year trend.”