In 1859, architect James Renwick Jr., was hired to design an art museum located near the White House. Renwick took design inspiration from the Paris addition of the Louvre and other European Empire architectural styles. In addition to using European architecture as inspiration, Renwick incorporated elements of America, such as an agricultural resemblance of corn located on the capitals of the building.
Since Renwick was able to seamlessly create a museum that integrated European and American architecture, Charles Sumner, a senator dubbed it as the “American Louvre”. In 1861, the exterior of the Renwick Gallery was finished. But, the interior construction was halted due to the Civil War. In 1869, William Corcoran was able to continue his construction and display of his art collection. Finally, the Renwick Gallery was finished in 1873. One year later, it was official open to the public.
Throughout 1899 to 1964, the fate of the Renwick Gallery was up in the air. On one side, Congress wanted to discontinue the Gallery and use it for another purpose. On the other hand, Jacqueline Kennedy fought to replenish Lafayette Square, which included maintaining the Renwick Gallery. Finally, in 1965, the Smithsonian’s secretary, S. Dillon Ripley, pitched the idea of the Smithsonian running the gallery. President Lyndon B. Johnson agreed to Ripley’s proposal, and the Renwick Gallery’s administration and facility was handed over to the Smithsonian.
Throughout the mid-1900s, the Renwick Gallery underwent exterior and interior renovations that would enable it to showcase a maximum amount of artifacts. In 1969, the Gallery was registered under the National Register of Historic Places, and two years later it was regarded as the Lafayette Square Historic District’s National Historic Landmark.
On January 28, 1972, the Renwick Gallery opened to the public as a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The new Renwick Gallery was designated as the site for preserving, displaying, and promoting American decorative arts and contemporary crafts.
Photo: Smithsonian American Art Museum Renwick Gallery