Controversy over Cochran Gallery is a symptom of preservation problem

By Ean Marshall

As the nation’s capital, Washington D.C. has a rich historical legacy. The Smithsonian Institutions, the monuments on the mall, the plaques and signs marking historical events in various neighborhoods, and the many federal buildings that can be found across the city all keep this legacy alive and well.

One of the most treasured buildings in DC whose rich legacy was recently threatened is the Corcoran Gallery. Originally founded in 1869 by William Corcoran, it was one of the oldest art galleries in the nation, and was opened to the public seven years later in 1874. It hosted a valuable collection of works by artists like Picasso, Monet, and others, as it was the oldest and largest non-federal museum in DC. It was first added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, and then designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1992. It was also home to D.C.’s only professional art school, the Corcoran College of Art and Design.

Last year, due to financial losses, the Corcoran Trustees decided to go to court to have the institution dissolved, which was granted. The art collection was donated to the National Gallery of Art, while the college and the $200 million building were donated to George Washington University.

“We were planning to do some extensive renovation in many of the interior spaces of the Corcoran” said Alan Wade, current Interim Director of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in an interview over email. “Spaces like the basement, some staircases, and several galleries,” claiming that they would be used for developing arts education.

In response, the D.C. Preservation League (DCPL), one of the biggest local historic preservation groups, submitted a nomination to extend the national historic landmark status of the Corcoran to include some of its interior spaces, such as the galleries that were accessible to the public. This led to several hearings on the issue between GW, and the DCPL, over the course of two months, presided by the DC Office of Planning’s Historic Preservation Review Board.

Peter Sefton, one of the trustees of the DCPL, said over phone that the organization became involved when “some former employees of the Corcoran came forward and told us that plans were very imminent for GW to take the whole thing over, and the interior would possibly be used for other purposes.”

To get support for the nomination, Sefton said “Every building has a story, and you kind of have to figure out what that narrative really is… You have to have a narrative to start with.” That narrative was the idea that the Cochran was “a very radical, groundbreaking kind of gallery… It was the only place you could see art in the city.”

Sefton added that by “doing pretty deep archival work about the late 1890s and 1900s” he discovered that in its early days, the Cochran’s atrium was where the visiting Archbishop of Canterbury had his public reception, its oval helicycle was where the McMillan architectural plan that created the modern National Mall was presented, a place “where Washingtonians could take in contemporary art.” He credited the people that worked at the Cochran for helping his organization, because “We had to work under pretty tight deadline, so any jump start you can get is pretty positive.”

Support for nominating the interior for historical preservation status came from all corners of the country. In an email from March 15, Elizabeth Punsalan, the Corcoran’s former director of special events and now living in California, wrote “I believe the building should be preserved not only as a an architectural treasure in the nation’s capitol, but also for the history that has passed through it.”

Earlier on March 12, Jerry Weiss, an instructor at the Arts Students League of New York, believed “once a landmark of architectural and historical beauty is changed, the renovation can not be undone,” offering the evidence of the renovated Penn Station, “its place taken by a new and aesthetically failing structure, is perhaps our most dramatic lesson in the tragedy of renovating a significant space.”

And closer to home, Benjamin Fogery, who served as an art critic for the Washington Star and the Post, said in an email on March 18 that “the whole enterprise of preparing these notable interiors for new life in the 21st century is an epic challenge.”

Though Sefton was very happy with the ruling, despite the review board not designating every part of the interior as having historic status, like four galleries and he does see GW’s attempt to renovate the Cochran as the latest casualty of something that non-Smithsonian museums face in the District. “A lot of these private museums are under a great deal of financial pressure now. It’s becoming so expensive to run them. In Washington, any place that makes you pay some sort of admission… is up against all these free government museums. And it makes your situation very difficult” he says.

Though he thinks that the Cochran Gallery’s situation is a little special due to being in competition with the Smithsonian Institutions, he believes that its closure is part of a bigger issue, that of a growing trend about how private corporations and organizations are attempting to repurpose or demolish historical sites, even if these sites are listed on either the Register of National Historic Places or as National Historic Landmarks. “You see it in a lot of different types of museums besides art museums” Sefton explained, “for example like house museums. You know, where you have a historic house, and you pay an admission charge. It’s become so expensive to operate, and their attendance is either stagnant or declining.”

When this happens, a piece of history is lost, and the sites are usually demolished or converted into something completely different from what they used to be, they are removed from the National Register Register of Historic Places.

Bruce Yarnell, the Operations and Grant Grants Manager for the DC Historic Preservation Office, said that even if a site is on the register, “doesn’t mean they are immune form change, as it is only an honorary national designation.”

“There’s the Old Post Office Pavilion for one” he mentions, “Although it was the city’s main post office and housed the National Endowment of the Arts, that didn’t stop the Trump Organization from stepping in.”

Donald Trump plans on converting the place into a luxury hotel in 2016, so the historic site shut down almost exactly a year ago on May 1.

According to data obtained from the National Park Service, which is in charge of the Register of National Historic Places, at least 1,750 sites have been removed since 2012. Though the data shows that a majority of these were delisted in 2000, no doubt due to the fears about Y2K, there were about 50 removals in 2011.

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For now, most of the historic interior space of the Corcoran has been saved, and the building’s history has been preserved. “

“We’re lucky in Washington that we have such strong local laws” Sefton explains, as those residents in other states (such as Arkansas, which has removed 147 sites since 1970) “might be surprised to find that a building they thought was protected is now gone.”

But with organizations like the DCPL on the watch, the historic legacy of Washington’s architecture has potential to continue.

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