Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery

  • Client

    • Smithsonian Institution
  • Project Type

Design Achievement - As the first purpose-built art museum in America and a principal structure in the Smithsonian Institution portfolio, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum holds significant value for American history. The Renwick Gallery, situated across from the White House, was built in 1859 to the design of architect James Renwick, Jr. and was last renovated in 1967-1972. DLR Group's major renovation of The Renwick Gallery preserves and respects the historic character of the National Historic Landmark building, while modernizing infrastructure and systems with state-of-the-art sustainable and energy-efficient technologies. Rather than relying on rote historic preservation, the design employs an artful interpretation balancing heavy infrastructure improvements with a light architectural touch, to ensure the building continues to be an asset for our nation for years to come. The design takes advantage of already-modified interior core light wells and attic space to accommodate new infrastructure; thus, avoiding impact to historic spaces. Once considered a hidden gem, the Gallery has become a true destination for art lovers and visitors across all demographics who are passionate about its exhibitions, its history, and its national importance. 

Scope Summary - The renovation of this 51,386 SF historic structure replaced and improved major building infrastructure, enhanced historic features, and improved interior conditions. The project included: restoration of two long-concealed vaulted ceilings; re-creation of the original 19th-century window configuration; replacement of all HVAC, electrical, plumbing, fire-suppression, and life safety systems; upgrades to art-storage areas and restrooms, as well as to security, phone, and data communication systems; repairs to the roof, roof drainage system, and exterior façade; and improvements to visitor entrance accessibility. The basement was reconfigured for improved staff offices and workshops, providing an entrance with well-defined separation from non-public staff areas and mechanical spaces. The building is one of the first museums in the U.S. to use an all-LED solution for gallery lighting. The significant use of LED illumination and exhibit lighting enhances energy efficiency, while preserving the level of controlled lighting necessary in a museum environment. The project was designed for energy performance approximately 30 percent better than ASHRAE Standard 90.1-2007 and is pending LEED NC Silver certification. DLR Group provided architecture, integrated MEP engineering, sustainable design, interior design, lighting, technology, and historic preservation consulting services.



In addition to upgraded art-storage areas; exterior brick repointing and stucco repair; roof repairs; and accessibility entrance upgrades, the project included replacement of all heating, air conditioning, electrical, plumbing, fire-suppression and life safety systems as well as upgrades to security, phone, and data communication systems. HVAC systems were designed to maintain close temperature and humidity control within gallery spaces, which include a 40-foot-high Grand Salon.

A key achievement was the significant use of LED illumination and exhibit lighting, which dramatically enhances energy efficiency while preserving the level of controlled lighting necessary in a museum environment. Public spaces are now illuminated entirely with LED lighting. The new lighting system will reduce lighting energy needs by as much as 70% which, combined with other infrastructure improvements, will significantly reduce the building’s energy footprint.

The Energy to Preserve Form
Energy use was a major consideration for the project, given the Smithsonian Institution’s commitment to climate change research and education. Proposed improvements to performance tested the boundaries of the existing building footprint. To meet these goals, the project team worked with an LED lighting manufacturer to develop a brand-new product line capable of 4-, 8-, and 12-degree beam spreads, critical for lighting objects from 16-foot heights. This reduced lighting power density from 6 Watts per square-foot to 1 W/sf, and fixtures are cooled by a passive chimney system that allow air flow but control light spill. This design move subsequently allowed for judicious sizing of mechanical and electrical systems to better fit within the tight spatial boundaries of the building. And it effectively avoided costly and disruptive interventions, and cleared external historic preservation reviews rapidly.

Energy and mechanical system features include:

  • modular water-cooled chiller system
  • modular high-efficiency condensing boiler plant
  • variable primary heating hot water and chilled water pumping
  • advanced submetering
  • LED lighting
  • fan arrays
  • low velocity ductwork
  • upgraded roof insulation
  • upgraded windows

The collective sum of these system features allowed for significant reduction in conditioning demand, with a substantial downstream impact on envelope, structural, electrical and HVAC system sizing and cost.

Visitor and Staff Wellness
This building continues to be one of the first art museums in the U.S. to still retain natural daylighting. This not only creates a special background for the exhibition of both 2D/3D works, but also enhances the well-being of visitors.

Because the primary program of the museum is artwork, museum environmental control and stability was critical. The building now operates to ASHRAE Class A standards and Smithsonian criteria for relative humidity. Windows were upgraded for proper UV control and condensation risk mitigation. Daylight levels can be attenuated with custom scrims.

Revealing History
The building was originally completed in the 1859 and has been able to maintain its core structure of load-bearing masonry, steel, and timber. Renovation of the 34,000-square-foot masonry structure revealed two long-concealed vaulted ceilings in the second-floor galleries, which were restored to re-create the original 19th-century window configuration.

Today’s museums require significant flexibility to support large scale three-dimensional artwork. These pieces are often heavy, and require an enhanced electrical and technology armature. The project team was able to provide historically sensitive upgrades to structural systems in the attic to allow 40 tons of new static load in the Grand Salon.

The first exhibition, “Wonder,” highlighted the increased flexibility of systems in supporting a dynamic range of art. While the success of “Wonder” was externally focused on exhibits, it relied on the significant improvements behind the scenes.

According to the museum, within just six weeks of reopening, the Renwick Gallery exceeded its previous annual visitation averages, and has engaged new audiences as reflected in increased social media activity. Once considered a “hidden gem,” the newly reopened space has become a popular destination for art lovers and visitors across all demographics who are passionately excited about its exhibitions, its history, and its importance for Washington, D.C., and the nation.

Awards & Recognition

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  • Top 10 Award

    American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment (AIA COTE)
  • Award of Merit for a High-Performance Building

    Sustainable Buildings Industry Council
  • DC | MD’s Award of Excellence for Best Renovations / Historic Restoration

    National Association of Industrial and Office Parks (NAIOP)
  • Technology Award, for Existing Buildings/Public Assembly

    American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Region III
  • Craftsmanship Award, for Finishes: Plaster and Specialty Painting

    Washington Building Congress
  • Washington Contractor Award for 2016 Overall Best Project

    Associated General Contractors of America
  • Award of Merit

    Illuminating Engineering Society (IES)
  • Interior Lighting Design Award

    Illuminating Engineering Society District of Columbia (IESDC)
  • 2018 AIA Cleveland Design Awards

    AIA Cleveland

Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery

Smithsonian Institution