An Old Museum Made Good As New At 70, the Freer has survived renovation, its dignity intact

May 09, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

WASHINGTON — Washington--Lovers of the Freer Gallery of Art -- and we know who we are -- can rest assured. Four and a half years and $23 million later, it's the same place, only better.

Seven decades to the day after it originally opened on the Mall as the Smithsonian Institution's first art museum, the Freer reopens today, expanded and renovated from top to bottom. The work was much needed, but those who remember the well-proportioned spaces and atmosphere of quiet serenity that nourished contemplation of its Asian and American art could have been forgiven some trepidation. Would it be jazzed-up, modernized, trendied?

It's been modernized all right, but where you don't see it. Where you do, from its dignified Renaissance facade to its spacious halls and handsome galleries, it remains what it always was -- the most appropriate home imaginable for the collection left to the nation by Charles Lang Freer.

If ever there was a self-made person, it was Freer. Born in Kingston, N.Y., in 1854, he left school at the age of 14 to work in a cement factory to help support his family's six children. He later worked for a railroad and swiftly advanced in the field. By the 1880s he was in Detroit, where he amassed a fortune from the manufacture of railroad cars.

He began collecting art when he was in his 30s, was soon introduced to the works of James McNeill Whistler, and on his first trip abroad met the American expatriate artist in London. He eventually amassed the most comprehensive Whistler collection anywhere, including the famous Peacock Room -- the only existing example of the artist's interior decoration -- installed in Freer's house during his lifetime and later in the gallery.

Whistler encouraged Freer's interest in Asian art, and the collector made several trips to Asia. In 1899, at the age of 45, he retired from business and devoted himself to collecting for the remaining 20 years of his life. His holdings in Asian art, which became the major part of the collection, grew to include Japanese, Chinese, Korean, South Asian and Near Eastern art.

His collection of American art concentrated on a few figures he considered the 19th century's "most refined in spirit, poetical in design, and deepest in artistic truth," including Dwight William Tryon, Thomas Wilmer Dewing and Abbott Handerson Thayer, in addition to Whistler.

In 1904 he first proposed leaving his collection to the nation, and in 1906 the Smithsonian accepted Freer's terms for donating the collection along with funds for the building to house it. Freer chose architect Charles Adams Platt, and the two worked out the design. But Freer was never to see the gallery completed. He died in 1919, and it didn't open for another four years.

Asian additions

Freer's terms stipulated that the collection could not grow, and that nothing could be lent or borrowed. Shortly before his death, the collector amended his terms to allow for additions to the Asian, but not the American part of the collection. At his death the collection numbered 9,000 works, but additions of Asian art have almost tripled it to more than 26,000 objects.

The growing size of the collection was one of the factors that spurred the renovation. Only a tiny portion of the collection -- less than 10 percent -- can be on view at any one time, and there was need for additional space for storage and study. The opening in 1987 of the adjacent Sackler Gallery of Asian Art, with which the Freer shares a staff, increased the need for conservation and suggested the utility of an interior connection between the two. The Freer also needed to be updated in other ways, with better lighting and access for the disabled.

The most extensive part of the project was not renovation but additions of space. Visitors will never see most of the additions, since the majority of the new space is for storage and research. An excavation below the central courtyard created two levels of storage space, and an additional lower level for storage and research was excavated below the west side of the building.

Underground link

On the east side, an underground link to the Sackler (which is almost entirely underground) creates a public space in which portions of the two collections can be seen in adjacent galleries. The inaugural exhibit in this space, "Luxury Arts of the Silk Route Empires," brings together 58 Freer objects and 24 Sackler objects.

The original appearance of the courtyard was restored with brick paving. Platt's paving had been replaced with grass in the late 1920s, in a pre-air-conditioning effort to cut down on heat. The replaced paving around a central fountain follows the original pattern.

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