Rapid growth forced the relocation of the Gallery, and the present structure was the first of a group of semipublic and public buildings to be erected on the 17th Street thoroughfare between New York Avenue and West Potomac Park. An excellent example of French Beaux Arts design with Neo-Grec details, the Corcoran was designed by architect Ernest Flagg and opened in 1897; a second section, designed by John Adams Platt, opened in 1928. Throughout its history, the Corcoran Gallery has contributed significantly to the advancement of American Art through its traditional policy of exhibiting contemporary American Painting which has been held without interruption since 1907. In addition, the Gallery has a comprehensive collection of 18th, 19th, and 20th century American Art.
Two large bronze lions on pedestals flank the staircase of the main entrance on 17th Street. These lions were bought in 1888 at the auction of the estate of Bill Holliday, founder of the Pony Express. Director Frederick B. McGuire acquired the bronzes for $1,900. They were displayed at the original home of the Corcoran Gallery on 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue (today the Renwick Gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institute). There they faced the street, but when moved to the new building in 1897, they were placed facing each other. The lions are copies from the originals by Antonio Canova, which adorn the cenotaph of Pope Clement XIII in Rome.2
Two additional pedestals flank the doorway and were intended to support statues of allegorical figures. Here one realizes that from a distance, the scale of the building is deceptive. The doorway is 10 feet wide and 20 feet high. The two heavy bronze doors are each ornamented with a bas relief of a lion's head holding a large ring in its jaws. Entry is into a foyer from which a flight of stairs leads to the large open area of the Gallery's two storied double atria (commonly referred to as the Atrium), which runs north to south and measures 150'x 50'x 40'.
The area is lit through laylights in the roof of glass and copper. The lower floor is surrounded by 40 fluted, baseless Greek Doric columns while the upper floor is surrounded by 38 fluted Greek Ionic columns; both orders are of Indiana limestone and stand 18 feet high. The Ionic columns, which support the ceiling beams, are detailed with gilt bronze necking. The columns are spaced around two open wells with circulation along the outside. The frieze that surrounds the lower southern Atrium wall is a 19th century plaster reproduction of the frieze on the Pantheon. The walls of the lower Atrium were restored to their original deep red color in 1987. Originally, the Atrium housed statuary and plaster casts. Today, statuary is still exhibited here as well as plaster and wooden busts of famous Americans, which are mounted on brackets around the room.
The floor in the lower Atrium contains glass panels that circumscribe each interior court and originally served to provide illumination for the school studios located in the basement. For evening functions, the soft glow of the bottom lit glass panels illuminates the center of the large Atrium space. Flagg may have taken his inspiration from Labrouste's Bibliotheque Nationale (1854-75) in Paris, but glass floors were also used in Ware and Van Brunt's Harvard Library (1880-81).
DC Inventory: November 8, 1964
National Register listing: May 6, 1971
National Historic Landmark: April 27, 1992