Architectural History of the Renwick Gallery of Art, 1859

Usage Conditions Apply
The Smithsonian Institution Archives welcomes personal and educational use of its collections unless otherwise noted. For commercial uses, please contact

Narrow Your Results


Filter Your Results

Smithsonian Secretaries Information

Close Browse records and papers of the Smithsonian Secretaries, from 1846 until today. Pre-set filters help narrow searches by individuals who have held that office.

Expeditions Information

Close Browse records and papers documenting scientific and collecting expeditions either affiliated with the Smithsonian, or with which Smithsonian researchers participated. Pre-set filters help narrow searches by geographic regions predominantly represented in expedition records.

Professional Societies Information

Close Browse records of professional societies closely associated with the Smithsonian, that focus on areas of scientific research and museum studies. Pre-set filters help narrow searches by major topics and disciplines.


  • The Corcoran Gallery of Art was constructed as a private building to house wealthy banker William Wilson Corcoran's extensive personal art collection. Principal architect was James Renwick, Jr., who got his inspiration for the building during a trip to France. The building was designed in the rare Second Empire architectural style, named for the architectural style made popular during the height of the Napoleonic Empire in France (1852-1872).
  • At the start of the Civil War in 1861, when the building was near its completion, it was taken over by the Union Army and utilized for office space. Corcoran, a Southern sympathizer, had spent the war years in France. Upon his return, he found that he was unable to reclaim his property. In 1869, Congress agreed to allow Corcoran to open the museum as a public art gallery. The gallery opened in 1874. Eventually the collection outgrew the building and was moved to a new location. In 1901 Corcoran sold the building to the federal government who used it to house the U.S. Court of Claims. This office was ill suited for the historic building, and extensive damage was caused. Thanks in part to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy's Pennsylvania Avenue restoration project, the building was finally transferred to the Smithsonian in 1965, and after an extensive renovation was reopened to the public as the Renwick Gallery in 1973.
  • The Second Empire style building was designed with a steep mansard roof, highly decorated surfaces, paired columns, and extravagant embellishments. carved medallions with the initials WWC engraved in them, and second floor pilasters burnish the exterior of this grand building.
  • Lloyd Herman, the gallery's first director, wanted people to really appreciate the architecture. According to Herman, "The building really is our biggest exhibit."
  • Another major renovation is currently under way at the Renwick Gallery. The museum is expected to reopen on November 13, 2015.


  • Jacobson, Hugh Newell
  • Corcoran, W. W (William Wilson) 1798-1888
  • Herman, Lloyd E
  • Onassis, Jacqueline Kennedy 1929-1994
  • Renwick, James 1818-1895
  • Renwick Gallery
  • Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation
  • Corcoran Gallery of Art Early History
  • Corcoran Gallery of Art


Chronology of Smithsonian History


Ewing, H., & Ballard, A. (2009). A guide to Smithsonian architecture. Washington: Smithsonian Books.

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520,


  • 1859-1873
  • Civil War, 1861-1865


  • Museum buildings
  • Historic buildings
  • Architecture--Washington (D.C.)
  • Conservation and restoration
  • Architecture
  • Museum architecture
  • History
  • Architecture--Conservation and restoration
  • Buildings--Conservation and restoration


  • United States
  • Washington (D.C.)


Second Empire

Full Record

View Full Record