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Preservationist Battle: National Historic Places Designation Sought for Interior of Corcoran Gallery

“One Way” to the Corcoran
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

When I visited the Corcoran Gallery during a brief sojourn in Washington two Saturdays ago, I was forcefully struck by how sadly inappropriate it would be for this grand, skylit art palace to be relegated to more mundane commercial purposes, as would likely happen if the financially pressed museum and school were to opt for the proposed sale of their historic home.

To encourage preservation of this gem for the purpose for which it was intended, the DC Preservation League (DCPL) yesterday announced its filing of a formal 68-page application to have the interior of the Corcoran included on the National Register of Historic Places. (Its exterior was included in 1971.) The original 1897 Beaux-Arts buildiing was designed by Ernest Flagg, with a 1925 extension by Charles Platt.

“The nomination serves as protection against any major interior alterations to the building until a public hearing is held on the application by the DC Historic Preservation Review Board,” according to the DCPL.

You need only to have visited (as I did) the glorious, spaciously installed, definitive exhibition of Richard Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park Series (now closed) to appreciate what a crime it would be to ditch these generously proportioned, purpose-built digs—just steps from the tourist-thronged White House—to relocate to modern (possibly suburban) facilities—in closer proximity to shopping malls than to the National Mall.

Screenshot from Corcoran’s video on its Diebenkorn installation captures the most memorable gallery in this sprawling installation
On right: “Ocean Park #79,” 1975, Philadelphia Museum of Art

This well attended, critically acclaimed survey, curated by Sarah Bancroft of the Orange County (CA) Museum of Art, was revelatory not only for its expertly chosen, comprehensive display of the masterpieces from Diebenkorn’s most celebrated period, but also for an in-depth exploration of the California artist’s thought processes and working methods, as evidenced by the show’s very generous selection of drawings, collages and prints that uncover the experimentations in bleeding, layering and geometric abstraction that animate the signature oils:

Screenshot of the installation of Diebenkorn’s works on paper, from the Corcoran’s video

Just steps away, in the permanent collection galleries, one of Diebenkorn’s early figurative works was on view:

Richard Diebenkorn, “Girl in a Room,” 1958
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In his Washington Post article (posted online late yesterday) about the Preservation League’s filing for National HIstoric Places status, David Montgomery reported hat “landmarked interiors are relatively rare in Washington. There are about 700 landmarked exteriors, but only 19 interiors.”

Why is the Corcoran’s interior worthy of historic preservation? Here’s its sculpture-lined grand staircase:

Foreground: Hiram Powers, “The Greek Slave,” modeled 1841-43; carved 1846
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s the sun-filled rotunda, which currently houses horses—Charlotte Dumas‘ sepia chromogenic print portraits of army animals that are employed in burial ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery:

CorcRot.jpgPhoto Photo from the landmark petition

And here’s the oculus of the rotunda’s dome:

Photo from the landmark petition

If the Corcoran left the building, what would happen to its sumptiously ornate Salon Doré?

Salon Doré
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Formerly roped off, this room was opened for entry by visitors after a 1990s restoration. When I visited on a late Saturday afternoon, a young connoisseur was moved to dance while observing Yinka Shonibare‘s precariously balanced “Girl on a Globe 2,” 2011, installed at the center of this gilded 1770 Paris drawing room that had literally been designed to be “fit for a princess” and was purchased and later donated to the Corcoran by its major patron, the U.S. Senator and Francophile William Clark:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

How will the Corcoran’s administration respond to the preservationists’ attempt to partially tie its hands? So far, my request for comment has not been answered. (I’ll update if/when I get a response.)

The Washington Post’s Montgomery noted:

Corcoran officials find themselves in the unusual position of having to decide whether to oppose the nomination—and argue that the interior is not worthy of being landmarked—or support it and perhaps affect the market value of the building.

Even if the interior is protected, the Corcoran could still move, but the restrictions that would be placed on physical alterations would likely render the building less marketable.

Three weeks ago, the Corcoran announced that it had retained CBRE, a real estate services firm, “to analyze and discern the Corcoran’s real estate requirements and resources….The plan remains to assess the value of the building…in order to implement a strategy to ensure the long-term [financial] stability of the Corcoran.”

What the Corcoran really needs is a dynamic, resourceful, experienced new chief executive. No drastic actions should be taken until it gets one and gives that person a chance to weigh in on the institution’s future.

That search continues…

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