Art Shining Brighter in D.C.

Designed in 1858 by James Renwick Jr., who designed the Smithsonian Institution’s Castle and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., was the first purpose-built art museum in the United States and originally housed William Corcoran’s art collection.

According to the Smithsonian, Renwick was inspired by the Louvre’s Tuileries addition, and he modeled the gallery on the Second Empire style. The building features a distinctly French mansard roof and incorporates Native American themes, such as ears of corn on the facade capitals. The phrase “Dedicated to Art” is inscribed in stone over the front door. 

Construction began in 1859, and the exterior was completed in 1861. However, the building sat almost at the center of the Civil War, just half a block from the White House. In that time, the building was used by the Union Army Quartermaster Corps, rather than for art.

After the war, renovations to the exterior and efforts to complete the building’s interior began, and the building finally opened to the public as an art gallery in 1874.

The building returned to civic life from 1899 until 1964, when it housed the U.S. Court of Claims. In 1959, the building was added to the National Register of Historic places. By 1965, it was transferred to the Smithsonian to be brought back to its original use as a gallery of art, crafts, and design. It was designated a National Historic Landmark building in the Lafayette Square Historic District in 1971. The Renwick Gallery opened in 1972 as the home of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s contemporary craft and decorative art program.

The 40,000-square-foot gallery closed in 2013 to begin a complete $30 million renovation to preserve the historical structure and upgrade the electrical service; lighting; security; data communications; fire alarm; mechanical; heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC); and lighting-control systems. According to the Smithsonian, the technological upgrades, including newly developed light-emitting diode (LED) lighting, will make the Renwick Gallery one of the institution’s most efficient-energy consumers. Funding for the renovation is a 50/50 public-private partnership.

The Smithsonian chose Milford, Mass.-based Consigli Construction Co. Inc. to serve as the project’s general contractor. The company has worked on other notable museums, such as the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn.; the Sterling and Francine Clark Institute in Williamstown, Mass.; the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston; and the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine.

Using a database developed though its peer network in the D.C. area, Consigli solicited bids from potential electrical contractors. Aarow Electrical Solutions LLC, Hughsville, Md., submitted its bid in fall 2013 and won the electrical portion of the project in April 2014.

“We felt comfortable with Aarow’s ability to perform the scope of work for the competitive price they submitted,” said Michael Culcasi, Consigli’s area manager for the Mid-Atlantic region. Aarow has successfully completed other historic landmark projects such as the Georgetown University Dahlgren Chapel; the Walter Reed National Naval Medical Center; the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.; the Washington Navy Yard; and Fort A.P. Hill. 

Although the contract award was straight bid/build with all of the specifications provided by Consigli, Aarow worked closely with the construction team to determine the materials, means and methods that would best serve the existing conditions of the gallery and requirements to maintain the architectural design and aesthetics of the different rooms.

“Because of the design and age of the space, there were many areas that were discovered during construction preparation that subsequently required changes in material types,” said Chet Gagnon, Aarow’s president. 

In addition, the building’s plaster walls, ceilings, and many cornices and baseboards offered very little room to conceal multiple systems or raceways.

“Each gallery room has required different types of raceway and methods of routing them in and out of each space, requiring a great deal of attention to detail and coordination with the general contractor and other trades,” said Scott Stone, Aarow’s general superintendent.

Into this historical space, Aarow Electrical is responsible for routing a new utility-provided 4,000A, 120/208V, three-phase electrical service into 4,000A switchgear, which Aarow installed. The company is also responsible for the lightning-protection system, including the lightning arrestor, down leads, and grounding; the life safety and fire alarm system, including the annunciator, main control panel and more than 400 devices, such as pull stations, smoke, heat, and duct detectors, and water flow tamper and flow switches; the telecommunications system, which consists of up to 180 workstation drops and jacks for computer and phone access; and for the security system’s raceway.

“Siemens Building Technologies will install the security system’s devices and controls, as well as integrate the various motion control devices into the lighting-control system,” said Scott Gagnon, Aarow’s vice president.

Aarow Electrical will help the Smithsonian achieve its goal of making the Renwick Gallery the first all-LED illuminated museum in the United States. Museum staff began working with lighting-industry participants in 2012 to develop brighter and more precise LED lamps specifically for the Renwick Gallery. According to the Smithsonian, these new lamps will allow the museum to achieve its goal of a system that equals or exceeds the aesthetic benchmark historically set by halogen and incandescent lighting.

The company will install exhibit-grade, DALI-scalable LED track heads in each gallery room and integrate the existing dimming system into a high-end, customized lighting control system.

“The gallery will be able to program the LED lights to operate at certain hours, and at certain light levels, as well as program them to create multiple scenes for the greatest aesthetic value,” Chet Gagnon said. “When it’s all completed, there will be almost 1,300 linear feet of track lighting and up to 2,200 fixtures.”

In nongallery areas, such as offices, Aarow is installing T5 lamps, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs)and LED wall packs on exterior walls.

Historical challenges

Lack of space, either for materials storage or behind the plaster walls or above the ceilings to run raceway, has been the biggest challenge for Aarow Electrical from the beginning. For example, the company had to route raceway around existing wood structures without removing the historical ceilings and moldings.

“Consigli cut holes in the ceilings and coordinated with us to create channels for routing raceway,” Chet Gagnon said. 

In addition, Consigli temporarily removed baseboards so Aarow electricians could install wiring and raceway behind plaster walls without damaging the woodwork’s historical integrity. 

“It takes an enormous amount of coordination with all the trades to ensure that the electrical and mechanical system wiring can be installed with the least amount of cutting and channeling possible,” Chet Gagnon said. 

The building’s basement level also presented the team with space issues. The low ceiling made it impossible for Aarow to install switchgear without requiring some customization. 

“We worked with Siemens Building Technologies to engineer a secondary feeder breaker, and the metering equipment was subsequently relocated from the customized switchgear into separate enclosures constructed on the walls,” Chet Gagnon said.

The building’s historical nature, and the requirement to maintain the integrity of all the cornices and moldings, has meant that no raceways in any of the gallery spaces could be wall-mounted; instead, the raceways had to be concealed behind existing plaster.

“Working around walls, ceilings, stairwells and moldings that cannot be removed has required that the raceway installation had to be designed, routed and consolidated at specific wall locations for each individual gallery room to complete the home runs,” Chet Gagnon said.

To manage the lack of storage space, Aarow closely coordinated the major delivery dates with suppliers so that material arrives on-site as close as possible to the day of the installation.

“We worked with suppliers to create daily and on-time delivery schedules to ensure a flow of necessary materials that could be kept in close quarters,” Chet Gagnon said.

According to Culcasi, Aarow Electrical is helping the project succeed by working collaboratively with the entire construction team and ensuring the proper coordination required to route the raceway and install all of the building’s system components.

“They work closely with our management staff and are creative in problem solving,” Culcasi said.

Everyone agrees communication ensures the success of any project, and Aarow Electrical credits the flow of information between all of the team members for the smooth progression of the Renwick Gallery renovation.

The gallery is scheduled to reopen in November 2015 with a major exhibition that features nine contemporary artists.

About the Author

Darlene Bremer

Freelance Writer

Darlene Bremer, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributed frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR until the end of 2015.

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