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What in the World … ?
The Corcoran Snared Frank Gehry, One of the World's Hottest Architects, to Design a New Building. He Created a Curvaceous Showpiece That Has Inspired Shock and Awe. Can the Corcoran Make It Happen? By Larry Van Dyne
Comments () | Published December 1, 2003

The Corcoran Gallery of Art, an architectural gem that dates from the late 19th century, stands just steps from the White House, so it was a convenient and august setting for a government-sponsored event celebrating the arts. The occasion, in the fall of 1998, was a luncheon honoring recipients of the National Medal of the Arts.

The Corcoran's atrium--a Beaux Arts masterpiece of neoclassical columns with skylights high above--was done up with tables for 400. Place cards for the honorees and guests were arrayed with careful thought.

One of the places was set aside for David Levy, the head of the Corcoran, who spends his days working with curators on exhibitions, overseeing an art and design college, cultivating deep-pocketed donors, and juggling the budget of an institution that has always been short on money.

Levy's grandest idea since arriving in Washington in 1991 was to engage a world-class architect to design an addition to the Corcoran that would create buzz, bring in crowds, and enliven the image of his privately funded museum in a town dominated by such big government-funded institutions as the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian.

Playing the architecture card had worked wonders elsewhere. In the late 1950s New York's Guggenheim Museum got itself on the cultural map with Frank Lloyd Wright's spiral showpiece on Fifth Avenue. Bold architecture had the power to define cities, as Jørn Utzon's opera house had done for Sydney, Australia, in the 1970s and as a new museum by Frank O. Gehry had done for the city of Bilbao, Spain, in the mid-1990s.

By coincidence, Frank Gehry was one of those to be honored at the luncheon. In architecture circles, they don't come much bigger than Gehry, who had gained fame and admirers for his startling buildings with curvaceous shapes and metallic skins. Gehry had won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, was fawned over by critics, and was famous enough to have appeared in an ad for Apple Computer, holding a cigar, under the headline THINK DIFFERENT. Getting Gehry to design a building was like signing Michael Jordan or Plácido Domingo.

It so happened--and this was not a coincidence--that David Levy's place card ended up next to Frank Gehry's. The Corcoran had been inviting architects to enter a design competition for its proposed addition, and Levy had been disappointed that Gehry had been reluctant to join in. When Levy asked why, Gehry said he didn't like to get into projects where he didn't know the client very well and wasn't sure where things were headed. But the two men hit it off, and by the end of the luncheon Gehry agreed to give Levy's pitch some consideration.

Gehry went back to his studio in California and eventually produced a design so impressive to Levy and the Corcoran trustees that the job was his. The design ran entirely against the Washington grain--like nothing the nation's capital, with its neoclassical buildings fronted by white marble columns, had ever seen. Gehry proposed filling the vacant lot on New York Avenue adjacent to the Corcoran with a building of flowing metal shapes that resembled what one critic likened to an enormous flower. When the design was made public, though still just a sketch and a small model of wood, paper, and plexiglass, it became the city's most anticipated building in years.

The late J. Carter Brown, longtime head of the National Gallery of Art and influential chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, declared his support. It was an exuberant work, he said--a giant piece of sculpture destined to become the grandest masterpiece in the Corcoran collection.

A few traditionalists were not so sure; some even hated the thing. One local architect testified at a hearing that it looked to her like an airliner that had crashed.

But most reaction was positive. Benjamin Forgey, the architecture critic of the Washington Post, was enthusiastic, predicting it would embolden other architects to be more innovative and less intimidated by the conservatism of Washington's civic architecture.

Now comes the hard part. To build the new Gehry wing and renovate its old facilities, the Corcoran must raise at least $120 million--a lot for an institution that usually raises about $15 million a year. It has pledges for $62 million, about half of that from its trustees and half from a single gift by a pair of former executives of America Online, the onetime high flier of high tech.

Whether Washington will ever see Gehry's design transformed into steel and glass depends on money still to be raised. Which means that David Levy as well as the Corcoran trustees still have many lunches and much persuasion to go.

DAVID LEVY'S BIG IDEA

Inside Frank Gehry's spacious workshop in Los Angeles is a scale model of the Corcoran addition that stands about four feet tall and is precise in every detail. Each gallery is outfitted with miniature paintings--a Jasper Johns, a Roy Lichtenstein, a Julian Schnabel--that replicate a Corcoran exhibition from last year. There are tiny signs directing visitors to various exhibitions, and it is one of those that offers an inside joke: ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE.

He was the New York photographer whose images of homosexual acts (as well as some lovely flowers) caused a tumult over artistic freedom and taste at the Corcoran in 1989. Mapplethorpe had died of AIDS months earlier, and the exhibition had been organized with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, which was then under attack from conservatives, including Senator Jesse Helms. After announcing it would exhibit Mapplethorpe's photos, the Corcoran backed out, setting off a round of criticism, the withdrawal of some gifts, staff resignations, and protests by artists, who withdrew from exhibitions. One protest involved projecting slides of Mapplethorpe's most provocative work on the façade of the Corcoran. The museum ended up looking bad from every direction.

Christina Orr-Cahall, the Corcoran director who canceled the show, found her position untenable and resigned. The institution had to find someone who could bring stability to a place that had run through eight directors in two decades. The board, chaired by businessman Robin Martin, formed a search committee, and a headhunter was engaged.

The man they found was David Levy. He had never directed an art museum, but he had run a major art school in Manhattan and came from a family of artists. His mother, Lucille Corcos, was an illustrator who did covers for the original Vanity Fair and other magazines. His father, Edgar Levy, was a painter associated with a group of young New York artists in the early 1940s that included the painters Adolph Gottlieb and Arshile Gorky as well as the sculptor David Smith. Smith was David Levy's godfather.

Though David was born in Brooklyn Heights, his father moved the family when he was three up the Hudson to Rockland County, which was still rural but accessible to New York City. It was a place filled with dairy farms and orchards, both parents had studios for their painting, and David walked to a one-room schoolhouse. They lived on South Mountain Road, which had attracted artists and writers, including playwright Maxwell Anderson, film director John Houseman, cartoonists Bill Mauldin and Milt Caniff, actor Burgess Meredith, and composer Kurt Weill and his wife, actress Lotte Lenya. "It was an amazing place," he remembers. "I walked to school with Max Anderson's daughter."

David's artistic interest leaned toward music--he played the viola through his late teens--and he intended to go to the Eastman School of Music in upstate New York. But another Rockland County neighbor, Columbia philosophy professor Charles Frankel, convinced him to get a liberal-arts degree. At Columbia, he studied philosophy, including aesthetics, then went on to New York University for a PhD in organizational theory.

Eventually his music took a different tack. He took up the saxophone, playing in clubs, on tour, and in recording sessions with such jazz musicians as Donald Byrd, Chico Hamilton, and Jimmy Heath. In New York, he started a jazz group called the East Thirteenth Street Band with the artist Larry Rivers, who played tenor sax. Levy's also an accomplished photographer whose work is shown in museums, and he is a collector of painting and sculpture.

While working on his PhD, Levy worked as admissions director at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, rising to become its president in 1971 while still in his early thirties. He introduced its first degree programs, brought in new money by raising enrollment from 500 to 12,000 students (about 20 percent full-time), merged it into the New School for Social Research, and created adjunct campuses in Paris and other cities abroad. Overall he had a reputation as an entrepreneur with a certain boldness.

The Corcoran came calling at an opportune moment. He had been head of Parsons for nearly two decades and was looking for a new challenge. "About six months before, I'd had a kind of epiphany," he remembers. "The phone rang one day and as I picked it up and put it to my ear I sensed somebody would be asking me a question I had answered a hundred times. I was on automatic pilot."

At 52, his personal life also was entering a new phase. An old marriage had ended, and he had recently met Carole Feld, a Home Box Office executive. His biggest apprehension was leaving New York, where he'd spent most of his life and had a nice place covering two floors of a renovated building at Madison Avenue and 23rd Street. But the challenge was too much to resist. In 1991 he made the move to Washington.

He and Feld got married, she became a senior vice president at the Public Broadcasting System, and they eventually moved to a home in DC's Kalorama neighborhood. They have an eight-year-old son and spend some time at a second house on Fishing Creek near Annapolis, where Levy takes to the water in a powerboat.

Levy stepped into one of Washington's oldest institutions--a place also distinguished as the nation's oldest art museum, beating out the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York by more than a decade. It was established on the eve of the Civil War by William Wilson Corcoran, a cofounder of Riggs Bank who made his fortune selling government bonds in Europe to support the Mexican War. He began collecting art in the late 1840s and chose a site on Pennsylvania Avenue just west of the White House for his original gallery--the building now used by the Smithsonian to house its Renwick Gallery. Corcoran, whose sympathies were with the South, fled to Europe during the Civil War, and his unfinished gallery was commandeered by the Union army. It was returned when he came back from Europe after the war.

Running out of space in that building, the trustees bought a lot just to the south, at 17th Street and New York Avenue, and built a new gallery in 1897. It was designed by Ernest Flagg, a young New York architect trained in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. A second structure, designed by Charles Platt, was attached in 1927 to house a large collection donated to the museum by William A. Clark, a Montana copper millionaire who served one term as the state's US senator before retiring to a mansion on New York's Fifth Avenue. The Clark collection came to the Corcoran partly by luck--he intended it for the Metropolitan, but that museum declined the offer because he insisted it be displayed intact.

The Corcoran's strength was its collection of 19th-century American paintings, thanks largely to W.W. Corcoran's insistence on championing the art of his own country instead of the European artists favored by other collectors. Two of its most famous works are Frederic Church's image of Niagara Falls and "Mount Corcoran" by Albert Bierstadt. The latter originally was called "Mountain Lake," but Bierstadt renamed it and sold it to Mr. Corcoran for $7,500 in 1877.

The Corcoran started the nation's first biennial exhibition of new American painting in 1907, a device that allowed it to collect, by purchase or gift, works from many notable painters, including Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, Mary Cassatt, John Sloan, Maurice Prendergast, Edward Hopper, and others. It was not so prescient in seeing the importance of abstract work--one trustee, also on the board of a local bank, warned against purchasing a Mark Rothko out of fear of what his depositors might think--but the Corcoran still had claims as an important venue for contemporary art. It was one of the first museums to take photography seriously and was noted for its collection and its exhibitions of important photographers, including Robert Frank, Arnold Newman, Gordon Parks, and others.

The Corcoran has served as a focus for artists who worked in Washington rather than taking off for the center of the art world in New York--something the lofty National Gallery of Art never did. The relationship was sometimes rocky, with artists complaining that the Corcoran didn't do enough to promote their interests. Sam Gilliam, during one famous bitch session, referred to Peter Marzio, then the Corcoran's director, as "a turkey." But several of Washington's best-known artists taught at the Corcoran's college, including Gene Davis, William Christenberry, Ed McGowin, Leon Berkowitz, and Lou Stovall. Many other Washington artists, including Gilliam, had their work exhibited there.

Because David Levy had been hired in the wake of the Mapplethorpe fiasco, he thought healing the wounds from that would be his highest priority. But he soon discovered more basic problems. The Corcoran's budgeting system was in disarray, and it had long lived a hand-to-mouth existence with annual deficits that had to be made up by checks from the trustees.

The Corcoran, for all its august appearance and impressive collection, was financially weak. Its endowment was $6 million, less than that of a second-rate private college.

The Corcoran's old buildings needed extensive renovation. The once-stifling building had at last been air-conditioned in the early 1980s, but everywhere were signs of wear and tear. Buckets were deployed to catch leaks from the roof and skylights, the wiring and plumbing were ancient, interior and exterior walls were deteriorating, the windows needed to be redone, and it was far from meeting modern building codes, including access for the disabled. It was crowded, too. Students made do with a lounge the size of a small office and took some classes off-site, there was no room for a cash-generating increase in enrollment, and 19 of the museum's high-ceiling galleries had been converted to offices.

Levy sought to make the Corcoran more user-friendly and to increase its box-office appeal. He installed a cafe in the atrium on the theory that museumgoers like taking their art with a coffee or snack. Along with scholarly exhibitions that came out of the interests of curators, he booked shows that had pop appeal. The clothes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the magazine photos of Annie Leibovitz, the illustrations of Norman Rockwell, the handbags of Judith Leiber, the sculpture of J. Seward Johnson--all were designed to bring in people who had not majored in art history.

Art critics often blasted these shows. Blake Gopnik of the Washington Post called the Seward Johnson show the worst art exhibition he had ever seen. But ordinary people seemed less offended. Attendance has risen during Levy's time, reaching a high of 830,000 in 2000 and averaging about 500,000 the last couple of years. That's still far less than at the National Gallery, which draws between 5 and 6 million visitors a year.

The Corcoran also has been raising more money, thanks to an array of common strategies. It takes in some of this by signing up members, who get special treatment for various levels of giving; numbers are up from about 2,000 in 1991 to 10,000 now. It rents out its atrium, starting at $9,000 a night, for corporate parties, political fundraisers, and weddings. It charges $5 admission. And the Corcoran Ball, which the museum's women's committee has made into a highlight of the social season over the past half century, netted about $800,000 last year.

The percentage of gifts from corporations is often small, and Levy can get worked up about that. "At Parsons," he says, "I used to get $20,000 every year from Con Edison because they felt they had a civic responsibility as a public utility to support us. You know what I get from the utilities in this city?"--answering his own question by flashing a big zero with his fingers. "The Corcoran is the largest private cultural institution in Washington, the oldest museum in Washington. Where's the public spirit to support that? Giant Food used to send me an annual gift of $300. One year I sent it back."

Amid all this Levy happened onto one windfall, which had been locked in a vault at the Corcoran for 30 years. The Corcoran owned four Stradivarius strings--two violins, a cello, and a viola--donated by the widow of Senator Clark. On grounds that they did not really fit into the collection of an art museum, Levy got the approval of the Corcoran's trustees to sell them. A Japanese music foundation paid $15 million, and the Corcoran's endowment tripled overnight.

Another moneymaking idea that predated Levy did not pan out. The Corcoran owned a vacant lot next door along New York Avenue that had always been eyed as the spot to expand the museum and the college--it's where the Gehry wing will go. But the Corcoran trustees, which included several real-estate developers, had the idea of filling that lot with an income-generating office building that would be leased to private tenants.

Hartman-Cox, one of Washington's most distinguished architectural firms, was hired to design the building, and Warren Cox produced a design in 1987. The firm was one of Washington's leading exponents of "contextualism," whose intent was to design buildings that were respectful of structures nearby. Cox came up with a design that repeated some of the motifs of the Corcoran's original Beaux Arts building--a design about as far as one could get from what Gehry would propose on the same spot. Though the plans were done, the office market softened, and the project was abandoned--leaving an empty lot where Levy could make his mark.

FOG IS THE MAN

David Levy much preferred using the vacant lot to expand the museum and college, and his idea of what an addition should look like flowed out of a conviction that art museums ought to have higher architectural standards than real-estate developers. He believed the Corcoran ought to put up a building that was a work of art and a symbol of creativity--in effect, the most important object in its collection.

Other considerations were more practical. The Corcoran needed more space--for offices, exhibitions, and its college--but it also needed a way to raise its profile. The Corcoran's Beaux Arts masterpiece had opened just before the arrival of the 20th century. What better way to open the 21st than with an eye-catching addition that heralded a new century?

Once Levy had the support of the Corcoran's trustees, including chairman Ronald Abramson, he took a somewhat unusual tack in choosing an architect. The first step was to call an old friend, Paul Goldberger, the former architecture critic of the New York Times who had moved to the New Yorker, and ask him to serve as a consultant. Goldberger agreed to direct a committee of Corcoran trustees and staff through a series of meetings to think about the design issues raised by the proposed addition and familiarize them with the work of the most talented architects of the day. The process, which Levy likened to a graduate seminar in contemporary architecture, took a year.

The committee started with a list of more than 200 architects, and about 60 submitted their credentials. In the end it came down to three finalists--Daniel Libeskind, Polish-born, trained in Israel and America, and based in Berlin; Santiago Calatrava, a Catalan who worked out of Zurich; and the late entrant, Frank Gehry. Each was given $60,000 to come up with a design, though Gehry estimated his work at that stage cost about $400,000.

All three men came to Washington in June 1999 to show their sketches and models and explain their ideas. Libeskind, whose projects included the Jewish Museum in Berlin and who later would win the competition to design a replacement for the World Trade Center, proposed what Post critic Benjamin Forgey described as "a huge rectangular solid twisted and torqued into a rather strange, elegant shape . . . as if the conventional architectural box had been subjected to immense pressures." Calatrava, best known in this country for his new Milwaukee Art Museum, came up with a design that Levy described as "a great anthropomorphic bird" with its beak extending high over the old Corcoran building.

Libeskind, who was 53, and Calatrava, 48, each had some support on the committee. But, in the end, the choice was Gehry, who at 70 was an elder statesman among the world's most famous architects.

Th ough unassuming and down-to-earth, Gehry was so celebrated that mere mention of his initials (FOG) set off shivers among architecture buffs. This success had not come quickly. He was born in Depression-era Toronto to a Jewish family that struggled to make do. His father tried a variety of jobs from selling furniture to operating legal slot machines, but he suffered a heart attack when Frank was in high school, and the family moved into a small apartment near relatives in Los Angeles.

There were foreshadowings of Gehry's artistic destiny as a young boy in Canada. His mother took him to art galleries and concerts, creating sparks of interest that remained with him. His grandmother, who ran a hardware store with her husband, brought him wood scraps, which he spent hours transforming into miniature buildings. She gave him wood strips from bushel baskets, which he wove into interesting shapes--precursors of a line of bentwood furniture that he became famous for years later.

Another signature Gehry design--a translucent plastic lamp shaped like a fish--was a reminder of trips with his grandmother to buy live carp for the Sabbath supper. They kept the fish in the bathtub until it was eaten, and young Frank watched the sleek creature cruise the water. Fish scales are the inspiration for the texture of the metallic exteriors of some of his buildings.

In Los Angeles, Gehry's father worked in a liquor store, his mother got a job in a department store, and Frank worked as a truck driver and mover for a furniture company as he went to night school, eventually getting a degree in architecture at the University of Southern California. Most of his early career was spent with architecture firms in LA and Paris before starting his own firm designing shopping malls, office buildings, and a few residences. While these projects did not give free rein to his imagination, they paid the bills and gave him a reputation as an architect who paid attention to a client's wishes, who could meet a budget, and who created workable space.

Though much of Gehry's early work was on the West Coast, he did have one notable commission in the Washington area in the 1960s. James Rouse, the developer of Columbia, Maryland, hired Gehry to design four buildings there, including his corporate headquarters and the Merriweather Post Pavilion. Gehry still remembers the experience: "I presented plans for the pavilion on the stage of Constitution Hall with Marjorie Merriweather Post present. I'll never forget the size of her diamond earrings."

The project that made Gehry a phenom in the mid-1970s was the remodeling of his own house in Santa Monica, which gave full play to his creativity and his fascination with humble materials. Starting with a modest 1920 pink bungalow, he wrapped it in an architectural envelope of corrugated sheet metal and chainlink fencing. The house astounded the architectural cognoscenti and infuriated his neighbors, who took legal action hoping to stop his work.

Since then, Gehry has been one of the world's most sought-after architects, with projects that include museums, concert halls, office complexes, and private homes. Paul Allen, the Microsoft cofounder and Jimi Hendrix fan, commissioned Gehry to design the Experience Music Project, a colorful building in Seattle that celebrates rock 'n' roll. He did an office building in Venice, California, whose garage entrance is framed by a giant pair of binoculars done by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. His shimmering Walt Disney Concert Hall recently opened to rave reviews in downtown LA, making up for losing the commission for the Getty Center, another hometown cultural project he dearly wanted, to Richard Meier.

But it was the opening in 1997 of his museum in Bilbao, in the Basque country of northern Spain, that made Gehry an international celebrity. The museum, an outpost of New York's Guggenheim, was one of several projects the 700-year-old city commissioned in an effort to use avant-garde architecture to escape its industrial past and make itself into a tourist destination. Gehry's museum, which sits along a slow-moving river, is a dramatic cluster of curved shapes covered with panels of titanium that change with the light--an "overpoweringly beautiful building," as one critic put it, "that glistens like a reclining mermaid." It became an icon, drawing more than 100,000 visitors a month.

Gehry's studio is just north of the Los Angeles airport, in a former warehouse with high ceilings and hundreds of square feet of open space crowded with cubicles and computers for 130 architects. His enclosed office is in the middle. Hung on walls inside is a Los Angeles Kings hockey jersey; Gehry started playing hockey in his sixties with his two sons and at age 74 still gets on the ice about once a year with an amateur team he sponsors or at National Hockey League All-Star events. There's a fish sculpture that came from the collection of Andy Warhol and paintings by several of the artists Gehry counts among his friends. There's also a worn version of a Gehry-designed chair constructed of layer upon layer of corrugated cardboard--a tour de force of originality that he sits in every morning as he reads the newspaper.

Outside his office are artifacts that suggest something of his working method. While Gehry may create the basic shape of a building with a sketch on paper, that soon evolves into a series of scale models of ever-increasing size. Some of the models are of entire neighborhoods to get a feel for how a Gehry building will fit the landscape.

One of the models of the Corcoran addition sits next to the cubicles where the architects assigned to the project are at work--a team that at one time numbered 26. Elsewhere are models for other projects: a computer-sciences building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an open-air music pavilion in Chicago, a winery in Ontario, a science library at Princeton, a natural-history museum in Panama, and an arts campus in Biloxi, Mississippi.

While the use of so many detailed models marks Gehry as old-school, his shop uses technology in the most advanced way. In the early 1990s, his firm discovered a computer program developed in France to design aircraft that was perfect for designing the curvy façades that so many of his buildings feature. The program is used for everything from the actual design to estimating costs.

Gehry himself is a holdout. Sticking to his paper sketches and physical models, he has never used a computer.

Even if the Corcoran had picked Gehry without seeing his sketch or model, David Levy and the trustees would have been assured of getting a building that would attract attention. Gehry's buildings are unconventional and dramatic--made up of abstract shapes and unusual materials. They seem like giant sculptures as much as buildings, resembling shapes from nature or human creations like sails. Gehry, an avid sailor, used the nautical metaphor in the Disney Concert Hall, and the Corcoran addition has some of the same origins. Other buildings have sexy curves, and he often talks of a building's "body language." In Prague he did a pair of structures that were contorted in a way that suggested a dancing couple and inspired the locals to call them "Fred and Ginger." A performing-arts center at Bard College has been likened by students to a "mechanized space turtle," and the Bilbao museum is sometimes referred to as "the artichoke."

Gehry knew that Washington had a reputation as a tough place to do forward-looking architecture, especially around the Mall. Some of his reluctance to enter the Corcoran competition had come from a feeling that his buildings were so different that they would never be accepted here: "I thought, 'Me and Washington? It ain't gonna work.' "

Gehry also knew that the renovation of the old buildings would have to pass muster with the city's Historic Preservation Review Board, and the whole project would require the approval of the Commission of Fine Arts, which had reviewed design in the city's monumental core for nearly a century. The Secret Service had an interest, too, making sure the building's rooftop would not allow an assassin to get a shot at the White House, just 200 yards away.

Gehry thought that Washington had been well served by its height limitation and by the oversight of the Commission of Fine Arts: "I love Washington as a city--the openness, light, and air of the streets that comes from not allowing highrises. I think it's a very positive example of how to build a city."

He understood why Washington was so cautious about architecture, but not always impressed by the results: "You want to be careful in a city like Washington. If you open the floodgates and let people build whatever they want, it could become pretty bizarre. But you can't legislate against mediocrity. Even if you follow all the rules, you can end up with mediocrity."

It was obvious from Gehry's work that his ideas ran counter to contextualism, especially when new buildings merely mimicked those around them. "When you copy a style from the past, you do two things," he says. "You tear down the guy you are emulating, and you trivialize your new building because it doesn't have anything to do with today."

Gehry wanted the Corcoran addition to look like it was built at the beginning of the 21st century: "You may not agree with the shapes I come up with, but they are an attempt to be of the time I am in."

His addition will dramatically alter the appearance of the Corcoran. The old entrance on 17th Street, flanked by statues of lions, will remain open, but there will be a new entrance on New York Avenue leading into the new portion of the institution. The façade will consist of three wide ribbons of brushed stainless steel that flow from the roofline to the street, with the space between them enclosed in glass.

The Gehry addition will stand in the middle of a block that includes the Corcoran's 19th-century building on the left and a labor-union headquarters on the right, which is a concrete-and-glass box built in the early 1970s. The addition would be as different from its neighbors as one can imagine, though Gehry says he has tried to "tie the block together" by matching the lower roofline of the Corcoran's old building on one end and running up 30 feet higher to the top of the union building. He hopes his addition will seem "to hold hands with the two neighbors."

Early on there was some talk of covering the addition in marble to match the old building--saws are now able to cut marble so it can be fashioned into curves. But marble would be much more costly than metal, and Gehry realized it was the contrasting metal, with its different texture and color, that made his composition work.

The interior features a 60-foot-high atrium that narrows slightly as it reaches a skylight at the top--in Gehry's office they call it "the canyon," and it was inspired by the walls of an Italian marble quarry. There will be a children's center, with galleries and a place to do hands-on art, and an entrance where school buses can pull up on the south side of the building. Exhibition space will be doubled, including new galleries in the Gehry wing and reclaimed galleries in the old buildings, that will allow display of more of the permanent collection as well as more special exhibitions.

The addition also will provide a new home for the Corcoran's College of Art and Design, which has been the city's major visual-arts institution for more than a century and is one of the few in the country attached to a museum. The college, which has been overshadowed by the museum and crowded into the basement of the old buildings, will have its own space in three floors of the new wing that will be located below ground level. Two 28-by-55-foot skylights flanking the new museum entrance will provide light for student studios below and remind visitors that the Corcoran is a place for making art as well as exhibiting it. Students also will have their own exhibition space, a new lounge and cafe, an entrance of their own, and enough space to raise enrollment in degree programs from the current 350 to about 650.

Nearly $50 million of the $120 million the Corcoran hopes to raise will be used for a renovation and modernization of its two historic buildings--a process that will be overseen by the Smith Group, another architectural firm. The 55-foot-high atrium off 17th Street, which has served for so many grand parties, will still be there, the skylights will remain in place, and the cafe and an expanded gift shop will be in the same location. The biggest single change, which has made some people unhappy, will involve the Rotunda, the circular room just up the main staircase from the old entrance. The room will be removed to allow passage into the Gehry wing.

Museum projects--which go first-class in every way, from architect fees to materials and amenities--are more expensive than conventional office buildings, and the Gehry project is no exception. Levy estimates it will cost about $650 a square foot, compared with $300 to $450 a square foot for a high-rise office building in downtown DC. There are those who think that the Corcoran--an institution whose financial muscle is represented by a modest endowment of just $20 million--is being too ambitious in its plan to raise six times that for the Gehry wing and the renovation of its old buildings. There's also a chance the costs will rise if the project is delayed.

While Washington's arts establishment has embraced Gehry's design, there are strands of skepticism about how it will look. Some people question whether such unconventional architecture fits well into a city where neoclassicism and careful modernism have long been the norm in public buildings. Looking at the model that sits in the Corcoran atrium, one man summed up this attitude: "In the context of Washington, it's like a Pokémon watch with an Armani suit."

It's always nice to have buildings by famous architects--Washington has one by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (DC's Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library) and one by I.M. Pei (the East Building of the National Gallery of Art). But there are those who think that Gehry's style--especially his use of metal skins and curvaceous shapes--is so new and unusual that it does not bear repeating too often. Though Gehry's work is more varied than many people realize, several of his projects over the past decade--the Bilbao museum, the Disney concert hall, the music museum in Seattle, the arts center at Bard, and the Corcoran--all look like great metallic sculptures.

IN SEARCH OF DEEP POCKETS

Museum directors, forever in search of donors, read the newspapers looking for opportunities much as real-estate agents scan the obits. So it was not out of character one morning in October 1996 when David Levy noticed in the New York Times that Robert Pittman would be moving to Washington in the wake of the merger of Time Warner and America Online.

Pittman, a college dropout who had created the MTV cable network and had been one of Time Warner's top executives, was to become president of AOL--exactly the sort of person, Levy thought, who would make a great trustee for the Corcoran. Levy had met Pittman, but he had an even stronger connection through Robert Millard, managing director of Lehman Brothers. Millard was a friend of Pittman's and a man Levy already had recruited for the Corcoran board. Millard called Pittman, the idea was planted, visits were arranged, talks were held, and Pittman agreed to become a Corcoran trustee.

Two years later, Pittman was standing next to Levy at a Corcoran press conference announcing that he was joining with another AOL executive to donate $30 million toward the Gehry-designed addition. Pittman and his wife, Veronique, pledged $15 million, with the other $15 million coming from Barry Schuler and his wife, Tracy--it's still undecided whether the addition will be named in their honor. Schuler, who had made his reputation as a graphic designer and product developer, was in charge of AOL's daily operations. It was the largest gift any Washington institution had secured from the class of new rich created by the region's high-tech industry, and there was a hint of even greater prospects with the announcement that Schuler would become head of the Corcoran's fundraising campaign for the entire $120 million.

It seemed like raising that much might not be that hard with so much money floating around. AOL's stock was selling for $50 a share, and the merger that AOL's Steve Case had engineered with Time Warner suggested an even bigger future. Dozens of people who worked at AOL's headquarters near Dulles airport were multimillionaires, at least on paper. Pittman and Schuler arranged for Levy and Gehry to come out to AOL's headquarters to show off the design and make a pitch.

Optimism ruled. "People were playing with Monopoly money," Levy remembers. "They would tell us they were not going to give us money out of their bank account but they had these options coming and they'd give us those."

Now, with the end of the high-tech boom, Time Warner stock is down to $16 a share, many of those options are worthless, and the sense of easy money is gone. Neither Pittman nor Schuler is with AOL, though they are said to be good for their big pledges. The two men are still listed as Corcoran trustees, but Pittman lives in New York City and Schuler in California's Napa Valley, and they no longer play a central role in fundraising.

"We were riding a hell of a crest, but those days are gone," says Levy. "What it means is that we have to go back to raising money the old-fashioned way."

Like other cultural institutions, the Corcoran will have to engage the wealthy in a dance of courtship. It will have to find people of means who are not already committed to other institutions and whose psychological needs the Corcoran can meet. A desire to be a part of something special, to climb a rung on the ladder of social status, to engage an intellectual or artistic interest, to meet a sense of obligation derived from good fortune, to become widely known as a generous patron--all of these the Corcoran can deliver for a price.

Washington has always lagged behind other American cities in creating great art museums out of indigenous wealth. W.W. Corcoran was wealthy by local standards, but he was not among the famous plutocrats who accumulated big fortunes in the late 19th century and spent some of their money acquiring art collections and competing with one another to build museums. The Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, and the Frick in New York were examples, along with the Art Institute of Chicago and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

In Washington, the art museums that followed the Corcoran were created by men with fortunes made elsewhere. Charles Freer, who gave his collection of Asian art to the Smithsonian and built a museum on the Mall to house it in the 1920s, made his money in Detroit manufacturing railroad cars. Duncan Phillips, the visionary collector who began showing modern art to the public in his house near Dupont Circle in 1921, was heir to a steel fortune in Pittsburgh. And it was another man from Pittsburgh, the banker and industrialist Andrew Mellon, who donated his collection of Old Masters paintings and built the National Gallery of Art, which opened in 1941.

Levy believes other factors make Washington less than fertile ground for cultural philanthropy. Too many people are just passing through, with claims on their dollars back home. The city, despite the growth of the private sector, is still preoccupied by politics and government. "Hotshots come to Washington with political ambitions," says Levy, "not out of the desire to be filthy rich." There's also no state government here to provide support for museums, including private ones--a situation different from places like New York.

The Corcoran now faces competition for visitors and donor dollars from an expanded lineup of museums. In the 1930s, when the National Gallery of Art was under construction, the only place to store Andrew Mellon's pictures was the basement of the Corcoran, but the opening of the West Building meant the Corcoran was on the road to being eclipsed by an institution that had the dual good fortune of Mellon-family largess and federal tax dollars. The Corcoran's annual operating budget of $20 million is less than a quarter the size of the National Gallery's.

The Smithsonian--which opened its doors in 1855--focused on science in its early decades but has since added seven museums in Washington devoted to art. Five are specialized--the National Portrait Gallery; the National Museum of African Art; the Freer and the Arthur M. Sackler galleries, concentrating on Asian art; and the Renwick Gallery, which displays American crafts. Broader based are the American Art Museum, which has a fine collection of many of the country's notable artists, and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, whose modern painting and sculpture were acquired in a donation by yet another out-of-town collector.

The National Gallery and the Smithsonian museums all are subsidized by taxpayers, blessing Washington with cultural offerings it could never afford if the city had to rely mostly on private donors. The National Gallery, in addition to millions in private contributions, gets about $80 million a year from the federal government--the reason it does not charge admission. The Corcoran's public financing totals just over $500,000 a year, most from a small federal arts program.

The public museums, once content to rely mostly on appropriations, have become far more aggressive in seeking private money. Some of the competition surrounds recruitment of trustees--a seat on a board often being a precursor to a major gift. Trustees bring to the boardroom all manner of assets--time and energy, expertise in law or investment, connections to corporations or wealthy friends. Sometimes they bring a little glamour--the Corcoran snared Elizabeth Taylor as a trustee when she was married to Virginia senator John Warner and lived in Georgetown.

But nobody makes much secret of the main requirements for a trustee: high net worth and an open checkbook.

Levy is as blunt as a New York cab driver when he talks about the competition the Corcoran faces from tax-supported museums: "I think it is inappropriate for publicly funded institutions to go out and compete for donors in the private marketplace. The National Gallery may need private money for a lot of things it wants to do, but it will never go out of business if it doesn't get it. The private institutions, if they don't get it, will cease to exist. I personally believe it should be prohibited."

Levy is miffed at what he sees as the rich getting richer--the National Gallery being a prime example. It has a far bigger fundraising staff, and it uses private money to throw parties that flatter donors and are more elegant than the Corcoran can afford. He points to a case where the National Gallery, which has its own greenhouse, was able to force a flower to bloom out of season for one of its VIP dinners.

He also is not happy that some of Washington's biggest collectors mostly bypass the Corcoran and have their strongest ties to the bigger national museums. Robert Smith, of the Charles E. Smith real-estate company, is a collector of Dutch, Flemish, and Venetian paintings who has chaired the board of the National Gallery. Robert Lehrman, an heir to the Giant Food fortune and one of the city's biggest collectors of contemporary art, leads the board at the Hirshhorn.

The Corcoran board has changed over the years. In the beginning it consisted of nine trustees with life terms--a group of well-to-do bankers and lawyers who belonged to the Chevy Chase Club and were the essence of the old Washington elite known as the cavedwellers. Interest in collecting art was not a requirement for what amounted to something of a social club. And they stayed forever--Charles Glover, the president of Riggs Bank who also was the key figure in the building of Washington National Cathedral, served on the Corcoran board for 49 years.

The leading figure in modern times was David Lloyd Kreeger, who became the first Jewish member of the Corcoran board in the early 1970s and served as its chair for 16 years. Born in New York, Kreeger was a lawyer who came to Washington to work in government during the New Deal, then stayed on to found the Geico insurance company and become a wealthy man. A collector of modern art, with a home on Foxhall Road designed by Philip Johnson, Kreeger also served many years as board chair of the National Symphony Orchestra and the Washington Opera and as a member of the boards of a dozen other institutions.

It was Kreeger who engineered a series of donations to the Corcoran in the 1980s by Armand Hammer, the colorful oilman and art collector. Hammer's gifts included 1,000 lithographs by the French printmaker and painter Honoré Daumier as well as money to install air conditioning, to underwrite free admission for a time, and to refurbish the auditorium, which was renamed in honor of him and his wife.

One of Kreeger's biggest moves was to enlarge the Corcoran board in hopes of expanding its reach among the city's elite. The board grew from nine trustees to more than 60, with the new slots filled by leading lawyers, bankers, developers, heirs, society matrons, and the occasional black official or wife of a federal appointee.

"Going around town when I got here," says Levy, "I didn't meet anybody whohadn't at one time or another been a member of the board of the Corcoran."

But Kreeger kept tight control within a small circle, and many trustees passed through without having much influence or contributing much money. "Their idea of a big gift," says one man, "was $2,500."

By the time Kreeger died in 1990, there was dissatisfaction with the structure of the board--too big, unwieldy, prone to divisiveness. The Mapplethorpe debacle quickened the desire for changes, which were enacted about the time David Levy arrived. The maximum number of seats was cut to 27, terms were limited to nine consecutive years, and the expectation for an annual gift was raised. The contribution for trustees--known in philanthropic circles as "the give, get, or get off" figure--was set at $25,000 a year, then the highest of any nonprofit board in Washington. Being a Corcoran trustee was no longer a cheap thrill.

The chairman of the reconstituted board during the runup to the Gehry project was Ronald Abramson, who held the job for eight years beginning in 1995. Abramson, an energetic young lawyer, worked with Levy to attract new trustees, instituting annual retreats and trips to other museums to keep people engaged. Abramson's father is Albert "Sonny" Abramson, one of Washington wealthiest real-estate developers, and Ron had joined the board originally to take a seat once held by his mother. He and his wife, Anne, were art collectors who had once published a bimonthly magazine called Museum & Arts Washington.

Real estate has been the classic generator of wealth in Washington. The Corcoran mines that vein as much as it can. Robert Truland owns the region's largest electrical contracting company; R. Robert Linowes has long been one of the region's leading real-estate lawyers; Helen Smith is the wife of Gordon Smith, president of the development firm Miller & Smith; and Carolyn Alper is a member of the Small family, one of Washington's prominent real-estate dynasties.

New trustees often come into the Corcoran sphere through personal connections, and it was Alper who brought in her friend Otto Ruesch. Ruesch succeeded Abramson as chairman earlier this year and will be a central figure in raising money for the Gehry wing. He and his wife, Jeanne, who live in Chevy Chase, are art collectors and active in many philanthropic endeavors, including the Washington Performing Arts Society and the Kennedy Center, where they were cochairs of its spring gala. Ruesch, who was born in Switzerland, runs an international currency-exchange company.

The source of Ruesch's wealth symbolizes the broadening of Washington's economy, but he is hardly the only Corcoran trustee who makes money by handling money. Bankers have always played a big role at the Corcoran, given the fact that W.W. Corcoran was a cofounder of Riggs. B. Francis Saul II, head of Chevy Chase Bank, was once a trustee, and the Riggs link continues today. Its president, Timothy Coughlin, is on the Corcoran board, and David Levy is on the Riggs board.

But it's no longer just conventional bankers who are trustees. Joanne Barkett Conway is the wife of William Conway Jr., a cofounder and managing director of the Carlyle Group, a leading investment firm; Emanuel Friedman is a cofounder and top executive of the investment-banking firm Friedman, Billings, Ramsey; and Christopher Niemczewski is managing director of Marshfield Associates, a money-management firm.

The Corcoran also has recruited new trustees from New York, sometimes exploiting connections David Levy made during his years at Parsons. Besides Robert Millard, this group includes John J. Roberts, a retired executive of the insurance giant AIG; John Landrum Bryant, a furniture and jewelry designer who is married to Patricia Bauman, heir to a real-estate fortune; and Howard Milstein, the developer who once tried to buy the Redskins. Also from out of town is Paul Corddry, a retired executive of Ore-Ida Foods and the H.J. Heinz Company.

One of the unexpected boosts for the Corcoran's fundraising effort turns on a touching little story about one of Washington's most recognizable businessmen. John "Til" Hazel was a central figure in transforming Fairfax County from cow pasture to a thriving suburb of just over a million residents--first as a politically connected real-estate lawyer and later as a developer. In 1996, when Hazel was 65, his wife of 32 years died after a long battle with cancer, leaving him alone. To cheer him up, some old friends convinced him to accompany them on a trip to China.

During a boat trip up the Yangtze River, Hazel noticed a woman who also seemed to be unattached and struck up a conversation. Her name was Anne Barnett, and she was from Florida, where her ancestors had founded one of the largest banks in the Southeast. It turned out that her husband had died a few months earlier. Hazel invited her to dinner during an onshore excursion, a romance blossomed, and a few months later they were married and moved into Hazel's estate in Fauquier County.

Anne Barnett had been involved in cultural institutions in Florida, raising money for the art museum in Jacksonville and a Japanese museum and garden in Boca Raton. Duane Beckhorn, Hazel's partner in what once was Fairfax's leading law firm, happened to be on the Corcoran board, and he recognized that Hazel's new wife would be a perfect fit. She joined the Corcoran board in 1998 and brought Hazel along to a couple of events, though he did not know the first thing about art.

Two years later, when Barry Schuler left town and gave up chairmanship of the campaign committee for the Gehry wing, Hazel agreed to become cochair of the committee with his wife.

Just over a year ago Frank Gehry's design received the unanimous approval of the Commission of Fine Arts, untouched by the aesthetic and political controversy that surrounded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the National World War II Memorial, and other projects in Washington's monumental core. It was one of the last projects to pass through the commission during the chairmanship of J. Carter Brown, who died of a blood cancer a few months later. Brown did his homework--going to Bilbao to see Gehry's masterpiece, visiting his studio in LA, studying the Corcoran drawings and models, engaging in long and sometimes critical conversations with the architect about his ideas and intentions. Brown was one of those who objected to an early version of the addition, whose height seemed to overpower the old Corcoran building designed by Ernest Flagg.

"He wasn't a shrinking violet," Gehry says. "He was right up front in saying you've got to change this or you've got to do that. But I think he was convinced we'd done a contemporary building that was going to fit. He got the point that I was trying to bridge the gap between the union building and the historic buildings, that it was a complement, and that it worked. It wasn't going to look like anything else, but it was going to be polite to its neighbors."

About half of the $120 million has been pledged during the "private phase" of fundraising, including the lead gift of $30 million from Pittman and Schuler and another $32 million rounded up from trustees, who kicked in amounts as high as $5 million. Under way now is a more public effort to identify and persuade donors as well as an attempt to acquire help from the DC government similar to that given to Arena Stage and the Shakespeare Theatre. Slick brochures spell out the "recognition opportunities"--a $30-million gift gets your name attached to the College of Art and Design, and it costs $25 million to name the old Flagg building, $20 million for the children's center, $10 million for the library, and $1 million and up for a gallery. If you're really a hot prospect, there's a chance to fly to LA and visit Gehry's studio.

Gehry has finished the final drawings, so a single question remains: Can the Corcoran raise the money?

Levy and the trustees project a sense of optimism, but they are heading out into a tough fundraising environment. Charitable giving in the United States declined last year for the first time in a dozen years, partly because of weakness in the stock market. The market has improved, but it remains uncertain whether these gains and the underlying strength of the area's economy in high tech and other sectors will give donors the confidence to open their checkbooks.

The Corcoran also faces lots of competition. Washington is filled with cultural institutions raising money for new or renovated facilities, including the Smithsonian's American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, the Kennedy Center, the Phillips Collection, Shakespeare Theatre, and Arena Stage. It's tough even in richer cities like New York, where the Guggenheim has cancelled a new museum on the East River in Lower Manhattan. It too had been designed by Gehry.

At best, it will be a few years before visitors could step foot into the Gehry wing--construction would take 2H years and will not begin until the $120 million in pledges are locked up. At worst, fundraising would fall short and it might never be built. It took 15 years to raise the money for Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, and it took nearly 40 to finish the Washington Monument, which was completed thanks in part to the fundraising efforts of W.W. Corcoran.

David Levy is undaunted, convinced that donors will be excited by a bold and imaginative building that he believes will become a Washington monument of its own: "There will be a time when people who buy those packets of picture postcards of the city will get the Washington Monument, the Capitol, the White House, and this building. I don't think there is any question that it will be one of the visual symbols of Washington."

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