Dedicated to Art

Why Jackie Kennedy Saved the Renwick

by Jerry Leibowitz

In 1962 the building we now know as The Renwick Gallery was set to be razed for a park as part of a massive redevelopment of Lafayette Square. Everything was “go” for the demolition except for one thing. The First Lady of the United States was enormously popular and she did not want the building torn down[1]. Why did Jacqueline Kennedy save that building and in the process change our attitude and laws regarding historic preservation? Although there has been some speculation on this subject, I believe the answer is evident if you study the history of the building and the life of the First Lady.

Construction on the Renwick Gallery, built as The Corcoran Gallery, (“The Gallery”) was begun in 1859 and continued to the start of the Civil War when it was left unfinished. It was built to house the personal art collection of William W. Corcoran, who was what we would now call a player in Washington D. C. Although his life would make for a fantastic biography which has not yet been written, he is important to our story because he was very wealthy, very connected and he loved collecting art. He set about to collect great works of art from Europe and America both for his own collection and for the fledgling Smithsonian Institution. His Smithsonian purchases were to be displayed in an Art Gallery in “The Castle” which had recently been built with his approval. His private collection needed a Gallery worthy of his position and taste to display his art in Washington D. C. and he turned to James Renwick, Jr., the architect of The Castle, to build it.

 Corcoran had traveled to France in 1855 and was no doubt influenced by the renovation work on the Tuileries and the Louvre, begun in 1852. These buildings were being renovated in a Baroque revival style which became known as Second Empire, named after the decidedly undemocratic reign of Napoleon III (1852-1870). This style was yet unseen in America but was becoming popular among architects in Europe, especially France. [2]

Corcoran’s chosen architect, James Renwick, Jr., came from a well connected New York family where dabbling in artistic endeavors was encouraged. His father was a Columbia professor of Natural Philosophy (Physics) who dabbled in watercolor and was a good friend of Washington Irving, the gifted writer who also dabbled in watercolor.[3] His mother was a Breevort, a family that owned much of lower Manhattan. For much of his young life, James Renwick, Jr. lived at Columbia, perhaps even in a bedroom in the same building as the College Library, where he spent much of his time.  Although trained as an engineer at Columbia College and displaying his own talent to draw and paint, James Renwick Jr. became a self taught architect. In 1852, James Renwick, Jr. married Anna Lloyd Aspinwall, the daughter of the fantastically wealthy shipping magnate. Renwick’s first major commission as an architect was in 1844 for Grace Church, a Gothic Cathedral surviving to this day. While it is assumed he received that commission because the church was built on Breevort land, the beauty and the success of this endeavor lead to commissions for The Smithsonian Castle in 1847 and then to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the 1850’s.[4] By the time William Corcoran was looking for an architect to design his new Art Gallery in Second Empire style, James Renwick, Jr. must have been the logical choice. Not because Renwick had ever designed a building in Second Empire style, but because he proved to be incredibly knowledgeable and adept in different styles. It is doubtful that there ever was or will be another architect who could design and build Gothic Churches, Castles and Second Empire buildings with the flair and competence of James Renwick, Jr.

Although The Renwick Gallery prominently displays the words “DEDICATED TO ART” on its facade, by 1962 one could hardly say that the hundred year old building successfully fulfilled that charter. Due to an accident of history and the Confederate leanings of its owner, its first use was as a headquarters for a Union General during the Civil War, having been taken from Corcoran by the government of the United States in 1862.  After it was returned to Corcoran, it was used as his Art Gallery for a time until it proved too small for the burgeoning collection, which now included the art he purchased for the Smithsonian Institution. Corcoran’s stuff was moved to the larger Corcoran Gallery of Art a few blocks away. In the first half of the 20th Century, the building was mostly used as a courthouse despite being ill suited for that role.[5]

It remains somewhat of a question as to whose idea it was to put the inscription DEDICATED TO ART on the first Corcoran Gallery. When the Corcoran art collection moved to what is now the Corcoran Gallery in 1897, it again used the inscription DEDICATED TO ART above one of the entrances, as if to own the phrase. Of course, William Corcoran had nothing to do with that second inscription since he had died in 1888.  Yet while the words come alive on the facade of what is now the Renwick Gallery, they seem somewhat hollow and hidden on the newer Beaux -Arts Corcoran Gallery. Still many believe that the phrase had originated with Corcoran owing to his love of art.[6] Of course this may reflect Renwick’s uncanny ability to convince his patrons to use his ideas for Architectural details and then to convince them that the ideas were those of the patron. His patrons tell great stories of the buildings they created; Robert Dale Owen takes great credit for the Smithsonian Castle; Archbishop Hughes for St. Patrick’s Cathedral; William Corcoran for what is now the Renwick Gallery; and Matthew Vassar for the Main Building at Vassar. None of them were architects. They had in common one gifted architect, James Renwick, Jr. [7]

I mention the main building at Vassar College not only in passing but because it plays a critical role in this story.  It was constructed from 1861 to 1865, just after the construction of the Gallery. In the Gallery, Matthew Vassar must have seen a small version of what he wanted for his grand building. Both buildings were built of red brick in otherwise Second Empire style containing prominent mansard roofs and similar ornamental touches.  Unlike the Gallery but in keeping with the Tuileries and the Louvre, the Main Building at Vassar is huge. For a time it was the largest building by interior space in all of North America. It is said that when Matthew Vassar saw a lithograph of the work on the Tuileries, he wrote on this lithograph, “Similar to Vassar College”.[8]  While the main building at Vassar and the Gallery differ on size, one is not surprised to learn that they were designed and built by the same architect.

In 1929, the building now know as The Renwick Gallery was being used as the United States Court of Claims and was presumably showing some age. In that year Jacqueline Lee Bouvier was born in Southampton New York. In 1947, Jacqueline Bouvier entered Vassar College. There are conflicting accounts about whether Jackie enjoyed her days at Vassar. We do know that for her Junior year she left to study art in Paris and chose not to go back to Vassar. She ultimately received her degree from George Washington University.[9]

During Jackie’s years at Vassar, there was documented interest in Renwick’s “Old Main”. Rollie McKenna (Vassar ’40) returned to the school in 1947 and included in her continuing studies an investigation into Old Main. She was perhaps the first to treat the building as an important piece of American Architectural history.[10] Old Main was built as an all purpose building including dorms, and there is some evidence, perhaps folklore, that Jackie Bouvier lived in the building during some of her time at Vassar.[11] Whether she lived there or not, the massive presence of that building on campus provides a deep psychological connection to many who pass through Vassar’s gates. Jackie’s trip to Paris, where she could view the Louvre (The Tuileries having been a victim by destruction of the somewhat democratic French Revolution) and other Second Empire structures, may have reinforced her connection to her old college building. Although she would come back from Paris destined for bigger things, I suggest that by 1951 her connection to the Renwick designed Old Main at Vassar was well fixed in her psyche.

Ten years later Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy became First Lady of the United States. Aside from her obvious natural charms, she brought with her a keen knowledge of art and history which she displayed to approximately 56 million Americans with her unprecedented televised broadcast A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, which aired February 14, 1962.[12] By then, she had already learned of the plan to redevelop Lafayette Square which included the destruction of both The Gallery and the Dolley Madison house. On February 15, 1962 she walked the Square with David E. Finley, chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. She is known to have said, “Mr. Finley, these buildings can be preserved. And they must.”[13]  John Carl Warnecke, the eventual architect for the restoration of Lafayette Park later speculated that she “became quite concerned when she learned of the proposed destruction of the Renwick building.”[14]

According to the papers of Donald R. McClelland at the Smithsonian Institution, early in his presidency, John F. Kennedy “viewed the gallery from a second floor window of the White House, across a snow covered lawn…[and] decided that if possible the ambience of the building and its relation to the square should be saved.”[15]  While we are not privy to the White House conversations, it may be presumed that at that time John F. Kennedy  had somewhat more important things to do than to worry too much about buildings on Lafayette Square. Although there is little doubt that John shared his wife’s involvement with the Lafayette Square project[16], whether as a dutiful husband or based on his own aesthetic sense of what was correct for the area, it makes more sense that in this endeavor Jackie was the team leader. That she too could see The Gallery from the White House, at a location where Presidents no doubt had strolled, and its inscription “Dedicated To Art” commanding her to take action, she must have felt like the right person in the right place to get it done. That the project also included the destruction of retirement house of Dolley Madison, the First Lady whose dedication to saving art and preserving history in the face of invasion is the stuff of legend,  made Jacqueline Kennedy’s involvement all the more certain.[17]

In American architecture, the movement of the day was clearly towards the modern. Ralph Walker, former president of the American Institute of Architects, called the architecture of Lafayette Square “bad architecture…junk architecturally- it is junk!” As to the Gallery he opined “It is just a deplorable piece of degenerating architecture which will cost more to restore and put back into shape, and what are you going to use it for when you are through with it?…We live in an age of bigness. We don’t live in an age of tiny little things…”[18] Douglas Orr, also a former President of the American Institute of Architects agreed that “all those little bits of houses sitting along the street is going to make the United States look perfectly ridiculous architecturally speaking in the eyes of the world. I think that to preserve the old Corcoran Art Gallery or the Dolley Madison House is pure folly.”[19]

It may have been useful for leading architects to point out that The Gallery had failed in both its first use as an art gallery and then as a courthouse. Perhaps it could have been argued that its location would be better served by the plan of destruction and gleaming new office buildings and parks. But the miscalculation of denigrating the artistic and historic value of The Gallery and the Dolley Madison House naturally served to bolster the resolve of the First Lady. It could be assumed that the first lady acted because of her sense of the neighborhood, or her appreciation of 19th century architecture in general. Perhaps it was a kinship she felt for Dolley Madison and the place Madison retired to after her years serving her country. I find it more logical to assume that Jacqueline Kennedy’s years at Vassar and then Paris, and her contemplation of the work of James Renwick, Jr., gave her a personal and powerful impetus to save The Gallery. Within a short time the architect John Carl Warnecke was brought into the project by the President and he helped devise a new method of redevelopment in which new buildings were constructed in the character of the existing structures.  President Kennedy and his First Lady adeptly managed the politics. The Gallery and the Dolley Madison House were saved.[20] I think it no coincidence that The Renwick Gallery is now the largest building in the world named after its architect.

When Jacqueline Kennedy saved the Renwick Gallery there were few tools beyond political will that could be used to identify and save worthy structures. Although she was not the first to understand and value the old, her insistence in saving Lafayette Square is largely considered as a forerunner to later preservation efforts. “Member of Congress, in urging the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966, called Mrs. Kennedy’s preservation efforts a model, not only for the preservation in this city, but for large and small communities throughout America. “[21] If it can be said that all politics is local, it is equally true that all art is personal. I do not venture to guess how seemingly innocuous events in one person’s past can change history, but I am left to wonder if the same result would have occurred if Jackie Bouvier went to Smith instead.

So who in this history is “Dedicated To Art?” There was William W. Corcoran, the avid collector and patron who knew the young country would greatly benefit from the construction of an art gallery for the acquisition and display of art; and James Renwick, Jr., whose knowledge and skill made the construction of any idea a possibility and whose creation on Lafayette Square was so admired by some in power that their desire to preserve it changed our view of the world; and Dolley Madison whose legendary action in art and historic preservation set a standard for a later First Lady; maybe it was Matthew Vassar who fulfilled the need to properly educate women, including two in this story, and who built a great building for their inspiration; or Rollie McKenna who noticed something about an artistic structure when others would just walk on by and she elevated it into her own form of art; and, of course, Jacqueline Kennedy who studied and learned her art so well that she instinctively knew when it had to be protected from predators. Since art can be defined as the exchange of inspiration, maybe it is me for writing, or you for reading this. Think about it. You decide.

[1] Kathleen P. Galop, Esquire, National Trust For Historic Preservation; The Historic Preservation Legacy of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; Forum Journal, Spring 2006, Vol. 20, No. 3.

[2] For general background on William Corcoran and the Renwick Gallery see Papers of Donald R. McClelland 1857-1968, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Also, Rosalie Thorne McKenna, James Renwick, Jr. and the Second Empire Style in the United States, Magazine of Art  44(March 1951)  and Heather Ewing and Amy Ballard, A Guide To Smithsonian Architecture, Smithsonian Books, Washington 2009.

[3] Watercolor paintings of both Renwick, Sr. and Washington Irving are referenced in the Renwick Family Papers, 1794-1916. Columbia University Libraries. Rare Book, Butler 6th Fl East. Call Number:MS#1063.

[4] The leading researcher on the life of James Renwick Jr. was Selma Rattner whose immense collection of research in preparation for publishing a biography of Renwick is located at the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library Drawings and Archives, Columbia University. Sadly the biography was never written. The Rattner research collection remains an incredible source of general and specific information about Renwick and must be reviewed by any researcher who wants documented accurate information about the subject.

[5] Heather Ewing and Amy Ballard, A Guide To Smithsonian Architecture, Smithsonian Books, Washington 2009 at 88-91.

[6] William W. Corcoran self published a book entitled A Grandfathers Legacy Containing a Sketch of his Life and Obituary Notices of Some Members of his Family Together With Letters From His Friends, Washington, Henry Polkinhorn, printer, 1879. The book can be found at In a letter to the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery dated May 10, 1869. Corcoran takes credit for designing the Gallery and including the words “Dedicated to Art” on its facade at p. 32, 33. No mention is made of the architect.

[7] There is barely a mention of James Renwick Jr. in any of the recorded works and letters of the benefactors of his great buildings. See Robert Dale Owen, Hints on Public Architecture (New York: Putnam, 1849). Corcoran’s A Grandfathers Legacy, supra. Vassar, Matthew, The Autobiography and Letters of Matthew Vassar. New York: Oxford University Press, 1916. Complete Works of the Most Rev. John Hughes, D. D., Archbishop of New York Comprising His Sermons, Lectures, Speeches, Etc. Carefully Compiled from the best Sources. Edited by Lawrence Kehoe Two Volumes, New York The Catholic Publication House, 1866.

[8] See Rosalie Thorne McKenna, James Renwick, Jr. and the Second Empire Style in the United States, Magazine of Art 44(March 1951).

[9] John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Life of Jacqueline B. Kennedy. Website location:

[10] See for example, Rosalie Thorne McKenna, James Renwick, Jr. and the Second Empire Style in the United States, Magazine of Art  44(March 1951) 

[11] Alison Lee Cowen, Ghosts of Dorm Rooms Past, New York Times, June 8, 2010. Website location:

[12] Kathleen P. Galop, Esquire, National Trust For Historic Preservation; The Historic Preservation Legacy of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; Forum Journal, Spring 2006, Vol. 20, No. 3.

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Papers of Donald R. McClelland 1857-1968, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

[16] John Carl Warnecke, The Rescue and Renaissance of Lafayette Square, Journal of the White House Historical Association, Number 13, 2004. Noted to be originally published in White House History #13, 2004.

[17] In the televised broadcast A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, which aired February 14, 1962, Jacqueline Kennedy pays tribute to the heroic acts of Dolley Madison.

[18] Warnecke, supra p. 43.

[19] Ibid

[20] John Carl Warnecke, The Rescue and Renaissance of Lafayette Square, Journal of the White House Historical Association, Number 13, 2004. Noted to be originally published in White House History #13, 2004.

[21] First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Memorial Tributes in the One Hundred and Third Congress of the United States, U. S. Government Printing Office Washington 1995. Jackie’s Washington: How She Rescued the City’s History by Richard Moe, Leonard A. Zax, from the Washington Post, May 29, 1994. Website Location:

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