The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Architecture
The Renwick Gallery was designed by architect James Renwick who also designed the Smithsonian Institution Building, known as the Castle. The gallery was commissioned by the wealthy banker William Wilson Corcoran (1798-1888) to house his personal art collection. Construction began in 1859 and was nearing completion as the Civil War began in 1861.
A confederate sympathizer, Corcoran bankrolled much of the confederacy’s activities and fled to France. The building was then commandeered by the Union Army for office space. Corcoran returned to the US after the war was over, but was not allowed to open his gallery until 1874, and only as a public art gallery. It was the first public museum built in the nation’s capital. Corcoran’s collection soon outgrew the small building across from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, and he built a much larger museum nearby on 17th Street.
Renwick’s building was sold to the US government in 1901 and served for many years as the home for the US Court of Claims. During the 1960s, Pennsylvania Avenue underwent a redevelopment that looked at the state and use of historic buildings. Jacqueline Kennedy was concerned about the Renwick-designed building (which had been altered significantly when its grand spaces were chopped up into offices) as she sought to also restore the Lafayette Square area across from the White House. Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley toured the building and envisioned it as a unique outpost of the on-Mall Smithsonian. The gallery sits next to Blair House, the guest house for distinguished White House visitors. Ripley’s initial plan for the building was to display temporary exhibits related to the current international visitor to Blair House, highlighting the art, history and culture of his or her nation.
This Court of Claims building was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1966 and underwent significant restoration before it opened as a museum in 1972. However, the State Department proved uninterested in the link to Blair House and Ripley’s plan never came to fruition. The first director, Lloyd Herman, developed it into a museum of American craft. As he noted, the beautiful Renwick-designed building was a major part of the gallery’s exhibit. The gallery thrived as a home to American crafts and decorative arts, and was made part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The Renwick gallery reopened this past week after an extensive renovation, which included the restoration of its original vaulted ceilings on the second floor, re-creation of the building’s original window configuration, salvage and repair of its original moldings and wainscoting, and preservation of historic finishes. The heating, air conditioning, electrical, plumbing and fire-suppression systems were replaced. The security, phone and data communication systems were upgraded. The building’s basement was renovated for curatorial and staff offices, as well as art storage facilities. In the interior, an all-LED lighting system was installed. Wireless systems were also installed throughout the building to be used for both artist installations and visitor interpretation. On the exterior, bricks were repointed, stucco was repaired, and the roof was replaced.
The museum’s debut exhibition is Wonder, an immersive artwork by nine leading contemporary artists. Jennifer Angus, Chakaia Booker, Gabriel Dawe, Tara Donovan, Patrick Dougherty, Janet Echelman, John Grade, Maya Lin, and Leo Villareal are each taking over a gallery, creating site-specific installations inspired by the Renwick.
- The George Lucas Museum of Narrative Art will have a prominent home on Chicago's gorgeous lakefront. The museum will house Lucas's private art and memorabilia collections, which includes Star Wars and Indiana Jones ephemera, Norman Rockwell paintings, and movie posters. [via Wired]
- Who knew? Actors who got their start in government films! [via National Archives' Unwritten Record blog]
- Now this is tasty digital material - Food historian and cookbook writer, Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, has meticulously maintained ''The Cook's Oracle,'' where she logs every recipe, ingredient, and technique in the majority of cookbooks published in America and Europe. [via The New York Times]
- This just in from the Vatican; a virtual Sistine Chapel with Google-glass style viewers to cut down on visitor over-crowding. [via The Guardian]
- Lou Reed fans! 25 boxes of Velvet Underground posters and fliers, unreleased recordings, handwritten lyrics, news clippings, and more donated to Cornell University Library. [via Info Docket]
- And a new videogame inspired by Haruki Murakami stories. [via Open Culture]
- Ask Skorton Anything - Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton took questions from Smithsonian.com readers last week. [via Smithsonian Magazine]
- Congratulations to the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage as their Moses and Frances Asch Collection has been inscribed to UNESCO’s Memory of the World International Register. [via SI Newsdesk]
- This past Wednesday was National Fossil Day and this is what some Smithsonian scientists had to say about the importance of fossils. [via Smithsonian Science News]
- Close call at The New York Times photo morgue where a broken water pipe sent water rushing into their collection space. [via The New York Times]
- Stay tuned - DRM (digital rights management) may be coming to the JPEG image format. [via PetaPixel]
- Please welcome SOVA! - the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archive - which provides access to some 137,000 cubic feet of archival materials held across fourteen repositories at the Smithsonian. [via Smithsonian Collections Blog]
- Now open to visitors in Los Angeles is The Broad Museum. Designed by the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, it houses the 2,000-piece collection of Eli and Edythe Broad of postwar and contemporary art, featuring works by Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Roy Lichtentstein and Cindy Sherman amongst others. [via Cool Hunting]
- Prepare to be wowed as the National Museum of Natural History prepares the Nation's T. Rex for the new National Fossil Hall. [via Washington Post]
- RIP library catalog cards, you will be missed - After nearly 2 billion printed, OCLC printed its last library catalog card. [via InfoDocket]
- List of digitization priorities at NARA. [via NARAtions blog, NARA]
- Congratulations to the Archives own Pamela Henson, Historian, who was awarded the Herbert Feis Award for distinguished contributions to public history from the American Historical Association. [via AHA Today blog, AHA]
- In acquisition news, the National Air and Space Museum acquired the Sally K. Ride Collection which is comprised of 182 items and 40 cubic feet of papers. [via SI Newsdesk]
- More images are available online this week: 170,000 Depression-era photos from Yale University, 226 Ansel Adams photos of American National Parks, and over 8400 photos from Apollo astronauts. [via Gizmodo, OpenCulture, and PetaPixel]
- The Archives' Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig, Electronic Records Archivist, answers questions about web archiving at the Smithsonian. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- Planned for opening in Fall 2016, architect Phil Freelon, who is the leading the design team for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, talks about the design of the museum in the video below. [via NBC News]
Tom Rall, from Arlington, Virginia, is an avid collector of vintage photos, daguerreotypes and glass lantern slides. When he mentioned to his old friend Paula Richardson Fleming, a retired Smithsonian photo archivist, that he had among his collection a glass slide that might depict the Smithsonian Institution Building, she at first didn’t think much about it. After all, the Smithsonian “Castle” is an iconic building that has always been a favorite subject for photographers. It wasn’t until she got a close look at the undated glass plate at the annual D.C. Antique Photo and Postcard Show this past spring that she realized Rall might have something very special - a photo of the Smithsonian Castle taken while it was still under construction. They took the plate to Richard Stamm, curator of the Smithsonian Castle Collection.
“I was able to pin-point the year the photo was taken based on the progress of the building’s construction as reported yearly by the Building Committee in our early SI Annual Reports,” said Stamm. He and Fleming conducted more research at the Library of Congress and through other sources and were able to confirm the picture was taken in June or July of 1850 - the earliest known photograph of the Smithsonian Castle.
After President James K. Polk signed the legislation creating the Smithsonian on August 10, 1846, one of the first tasks facing its governing body, the Board of Regents, was to erect a building to house the new Institution. Architect James Renwick designed the Smithsonian Institution Building in an imposing Norman style meant to identify it immediately as an important educational institution. The day construction began was declared a holiday and on May 1, 1847, a mile-long parade made its way from City Hall to the White House, where President Polk joined the procession as it continued to the Smithsonian grounds. Once there, more than 6,000 people watched as the cornerstone was laid.
The photograph in Rall’s collection, taken three years later, shows the building’s two completed wings - the east wing housed the lecture hall, laboratories and apartments for the Secretary of the Smithsonian; the west wing contained the library and reading room. The central portion of the building, now called the Great Hall, was still empty and would remain so until 1855 when it began to be used as exhibition and collection space. At the time of this photograph, only two of the Castle’s nine towers were completed. The crane in the image rises over the North Tower, which would eventually rise 140 feet above the National Mall. The carriage porch at the front of the building would not be completed until late 1851.
The photograph also shows a small workman’s shed in front of the Castle, which was likely used by the stonemasons. The small trees and bushes in front of the Castle were planted by the Smithsonian and anticipated Andrew Jackson Downing’s landscaping plan.
“The Smithsonian has hundreds of photographs in its collections of the Castle, but none of the building under construction, which makes this image quite remarkable,” said Stamm. “The photograph is important because it verifies much of the written history we have about the odd way in which the Castle was built - the wings first and the main central section last. It greatly adds to the historical record we have for this national historic landmark.”
William and Frank Langenheim of Philadelphia took the photograph using a new process they developed in 1849 and called hyalotype (from the Greek hyalos, meaning glass and typos meaning image or impression). This process produced a highly detailed and accurate glass negative that could then be used to print either paper photographs or glass lantern slides. Since the exposure time for hyalotypes was about one minute, the process was well suited for architectural studies, but impractical for portraiture.
The image of the Castle was part of a set of 126 views of Washington, D.C. published by the Langenheim brothers in 1850, several of which were later exhibited at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exposition in London.
Tom Rall has made this rare hyalotype a gift to the Smithsonian Castle Collection. It will go on display in the Castle’s Great Hall today, August 10, on the 169th anniversary of the Smithsonian’s founding.
- Smithsonian Institution Building, The Castle, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Historic Pictures of the Smithsonian Institution Building, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The Castle, A Tour of the Smithsonian Building in the 19th Century, Architectural History and Historic Preservation Division, Smithsonian Institution
- Stereoviews of the Smithsonian Institution Building, Richard E. Stamm, Curator, Smithsonian Institution Castle Collection
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