April 2005

Expanding a House of Art

Cherry woodwork sets the scene for the addition to the Phillips Collection Museum in Washington, DC.

By Lorie Long
Created by Washington, DC's Columbia Woodworking, the Phillips Collection Museum's cherry panels and trim were not faceted from straight boards to create the elliptical shape required in the room, but were essentially "curved and radiused" to develop the proper form.

Cherry paneling, wainscoting and trim set the scene for the much-needed expansion of America's pioneer museum of modern art.

Inspired both by the vision of its founder and its location in Washington, DC's historic Dupont Circle neighborhood, The Phillips Collection Museum houses works of art by modern masters in an intimate, relaxed setting.

By 1921, Duncan Phillips, the grandson of a successful businessman and banker, had acquired nearly 240 important paintings, and opened The Phillips Memorial Gallery to the public. The gallery occupied the north wing of the family's 1897 Georgian Revival mansion on 21st Street in the District of Columbia.

Within the next decade, the Phillips family filled its home with many celebrated pieces by masters including El Greco, Manet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. In addition, Phillips intuitively collected works by artists not yet fully recognized, but destined for prominence, such as Georgia O'Keefe and Arthur Dove.

The Phillips relocated their private residence in 1930, officially leaving the entire mansion to operate as a museum of modern art. Over the next 50 years, the Phillips family expanded its collection to include more than 2,000 works of art, insuring its reputation as one of the finest, small art museums in the world.

While continuing to grow its permanent collection, its educational services and its membership program, the museum has undertaken a project that will renovate and expand the facility by more than 30,000 square feet.

Architectural Interest

Architect Don Gregory, of DC-based Cox, Graae and Spack Architects, designed the revamped and new spaces to "reference the style of the older structure, but not to copy it." The firm, known for its expertise in historical preservation and renovation projects, remained focused on complementing the older Phillips house portion of the museum, as well as the surrounding neighborhood. "I incorporated comfortable places to sit and contemplate the collections into the gallery layouts to carry over the residential atmosphere of the original mansion," Gregory explains.

His design called for the extensive use of American black cherry wood panels, finished with a natural stain. He included wainscot, and stile and rail trim of a simple, spare nature, and without sculpting or other ornate features. Gregory's use of rectilinear trim, in the craftsman style, offers what he terms a "transitional modern" effect. In contrast to more typical galleries of modern art, where collections are displayed in rooms with plain white walls and white ceilings, Gregory's approach presents a cleanly modern backdrop in a more traditional, residential setting.

According to project architect Don Gregory, each area of the project had its own special feature, such as this elliptically shaped, stone-topped reception desk.

The new gift shop contains floor-to-ceiling custom cabinets and open shelving. The casework stands 10 feet tall, with crown trim, and stile and rail boards. However, it was the new, elliptically shaped entry and reception area that offered the greatest challenge to the project team.

Woodworker's Challenges

Columbia Woodworking Inc., a Washington DC-based commercial, architectural millwork shop, stepped up to the challenge of fabricating the wood elements for these spaces. Employing 100 administrative, production, finishing and installation employees, the 27-year-old firm brought significant experience from projects in local commercial office buildings, universities and law firms to the table.

Columbia Woodworking project manager George Bilenki describes the Phillips Museum project as one containing a "challenging geometry." According to Bilenki, the fabricator's project team created computer generated templates of the wood panels for the elliptical entry area based on the architect's design for the space. "After the room was constructed," he says, "we brought the templates to the field and scribed them to match the existing conditions on the site." After reviewing the revised templates with Gregory and checking the dimensions for proper symmetry, Columbia Woodworking produced the wood panels and trim.

The fabricator shaped the panels and trim from laminations of solid cherry and cherry veneer products. The cherry panels and trim were not faceted from straight boards to create the elliptical shape required in the room, but were essentially "curved and radiused" to develop the proper form. Columbia Woodworking's shop subcontracted the work accomplished by CNC routers to produce the various-radius panels and wainscot.

Maintaining the symmetry of the reception room, with all of its diverse elements, fell to Columbia Woodworking, Gregory notes. The drywall and plaster ceiling contains a pattern; doors segment the ellipse in various areas of the room. "Each quadrant of the room houses a feature, such as a niche, a coat check area, or an elliptically shaped, stone-topped reception desk," Gregory adds. The starting and stopping points for the panels and trim were arranged to complement the stonework.

In addition, the entrance from the exterior into the reception area aligns with the entrance into the first gallery. To remain "pleasing to the eye, but not perfect," according to Bilenki, the places where doorways segmented the ellipse were carefully planned and executed.

The Phillips Collection Museum gift shop features laminations of solid cherry and cherry veneer products.

"We applied a traditional, oil-wiping stain - a catalyzed lacquer with a satin sheen - to the panels and trim," Bilenki adds. Columbia Woodworking also custom-fabricated each of the 10-foot cherry doors, some with glass lights, used in the project.

Columbia Forest Products, a manufacturer of hardwood veneer, plywood and laminated products, supplied the premium-grade cherry panels and boards for the project.

The site itself presented its own set of challenges to the woodworking team. Working with an upgrade and addition to an existing structure, the fabricator did not have the benefit of a clean slate. Fixed components, including ductwork shafts, stairs and columns constrained the design and its implementation. The limited storage space available on the site, coupled with limited access to the construction areas and the predictably compressed work schedule, all combined to keep Bilenki awake at night for a while. Field adjustments of the design based upon the finished construction of the spaces, required field adjustments of dimensions for the wood panels and trim that were accomplished with the existing stock.

A Work in Progress

Although the planning of this project began on the architect's desk in 1999, construction did not commence until August 2003; it is expected to be complete by the end of this year. The construction of another annex to the Museum is now underway. This timeline presents another challenge for Columbia Woodworking. Because of the phased approach to the job, the fabricator will be offsite for about a year, and then return to the site to finish the new annex.

The new building will contain a library and a 180-seat auditorium with a sloped floor. "The design calls for wood wall panels of varying heights to accommodate this geometry. In addition, the auditorium includes architectural elements such as columns and a complex ceiling configuration," Gregory says.

When complete, this site will continue to fulfill Duncan Phillips' dream of providing a place to enjoy some of the most revered works of modern art, on a decidedly intimate and comfortable scale, and in a residential setting. The design and woodworking crated by the fabricators enable this exquisitely balanced experience.


Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.