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The Renwick Revisited

DLR Group

When approaching the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, visitors are greeted with an ethos literally written in stone: “Dedicated to art.”

Affectionately dubbed “the American Louvre,” the Renwick Gallery was the first purpose-built art museum in the United States. Designed and built in 1859 by architect James Renwick, Jr., its last renovation was wrapped in 1972. When our team was tapped to bring the museum into the 21st century, we recognized a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: a thoughtful renovation that would respect the building’s historic character while modernizing infrastructure and providing sustainable and energy-efficient solutions.

In 2020, we shared our design story with Accidentally Wes Anderson. After touring the gallery and learning about all the hidden design elements throughout, AWA shared the fascinating history behind the Renwick.

“Time chipped away, but the Renwick’s bold original intention has remained stamped on its forehead. In 2015, the architectural firm DLR Group gave the Gallery its first makeover in more than 50 years, including rarely sexy, but always awesome, sustainability improvements.”

“Rarely Sexy, but Always Awesome, Sustainability Improvements”

An estimated 75 percent of the building stock in the United States is over 20 years old and therefore built before energy codes were used consistently across the country. In the ongoing efforts to preserve these historic spaces, the preservation community has become leaders in improving the energy efficiency of existing buildings.

For example, many historic buildings were designed with passive lighting and ventilation strategies, leaving them without the infrastructure for modern building systems. So, to update these spaces, we need creative solutions. For the Renwick Gallery, our design took advantage of hidden spaces (already-modified interior core light wells and the attic) to accommodate new infrastructure. In doing so, we avoided impacting the historic spaces.

The result? A 50% reduction in energy usage from the 2012 baseline operation – earning a coveted AIA COTE Award – as well as comprehensive preservation of the historic features to keep this National Historic Landmark standing for future generations.

Re-Dedicated to Art

Sometimes the true impact of a project can only be judged years after completion. Prior to our modernization work, the Renwick Gallery’s attendance had been lagging, competing for attention with much larger museums. When the renovation wrapped, it opened its doors to a greater diversity of artists. The response on social media to this gallery and its art resulted in over 180 million impressions in the first six months since reopening. The ongoing interest in the museum, IRL and on social media, is a rewarding result for our team. Now, the museum can focus on fulfilling founder William Corcoran’s promise to “encourage American genius.”

Join our friends at Accidentally Wes Anderson as they explore beyond the White House, highlighting what the Renwick Gallery offers the nation’s capital.

Want to learn more about all the design features you cannot see? Get the full project details here.

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