PRINT February 1975

Big Deals and Bitter Endings, The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

DESPITE THE PUBLICITY AND THE brouhaha, the Hirshhorn Museum is really just another building. True, its circular shape makes it a little unusual in Washington, D.C., but even that’s not enough to set it apart completely. In a city of inflated monumentality, leviathan scale, unharmonious proportions, and grossness of detail, this edifice bespeaks “inclusion”—it includes all that. But, while being inclusive of the stylistic imagery of Washington’s big and bland architecture, the building, designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, is very “exclusive.” Its monolithic form, solidly massed surfaces, its self-contained volume, all denote an architecture of isolation. Instead of relating to the Mall on which the museum is sited, or its immediate surroundings (such as the brick 19th-century Smithsonian Institution buildings next door) through its choice of materials, scale, and configuration, the Hirshhorn virtually turns in on itself. The 82-foot-high circular concrete drum lifted on piers 14 feet above ground faces onto a circular courtyard in its center. No windows penetrate the exterior mass save for an observation deck on the Mall side. Instead, its circular, ringlike galleries are only glassed-in on the courtyard side.

Approaching the museum by foot, one confronts the eight-foot-high walls girdling the museum on all sides. With no gesture made to the street, they match in aloofness the solid granite aggregate clad walls of the concrete drum. At the entrance the walls part, and the glasslobby becomes visible, as do several pieces of sculpture desultorily placed here and there. Because the three circular gallery and office levels are lifted off the ground, ground level spaces are open, except for the glass-walled lobby.Although a nice idea conceptually, this closed-open progression doesn’t really come off: circulation is too narrowly confined from the opening in the blank walls, to the entrance in the glass-walled lobby. The escalators slashing through the lobby space’s center hardly help. Thus there seems little reason to have lifted this circular building off the ground, except to stress its striking shape. Whereas many of the other buildings on the Mall are conventionally and often Neoclassically symmetrical, a circular building emblemizes modernity. Its very distilled allusion to the first real modern-museum-asmonument—the Guggenheim Museum—should not be lost.

The organization of the exhibition galleries into two rings seems programmatically sensible. The inner ring, overlooking the court through floor-to-ceiling windows, contains the smallest pieces of sculpture. Not only is the plan easy to understand, but visitors can “make the rounds” with no wasted time. But there is little surprise (except possibly the initial one for stray passersby who don’t know what function the building is supposed to serve). Nor do the exhibition rooms allow one to pause, sit, contemplate. The 15-foot-high galleries with their three-foot-deep concrete ceiling coffers provide little spatial variety—a vertical and horizontal expansion or contraction of space that would allow differently shaped and sized paintings to be seen in their appropriate enclosures.

Executed by Charles Froom, the installation handles the constraints of the ringlike galleries masterfully. As Froom explained “At least the rings don’t go down as well as around,” referring to the common complaint about the Guggenheim. This problem of installing flat paintings against curving walls is also lessened at the Hirshhorn because of its wider circumference. The Guggenheim indeed could fit into the circular fountain court. (Yet in several places, the curving walls still don’t work. For example, a separate wall had to be built away from the concave wall on the second level for the installation of Ad Reinhardt’s 11- by 20-foot painting, Number 90. Above on the third floor, Larry Rivers’s Billboard for the First New York Film Festival, only 6 feet by 15 feet, didn’t receive similar treatment—and optical distortion makes that evident.)

As far as the sculpture ambulatories are concerned, the physical configuration did not present comparable problems. Nevertheless, the dramatic installation almost completely disappears against the background of the large patterned black-and-white terrazzo flooring. And while the glassed-in walls open up spaces nicely on the exhibition levels, they are superfluous in the storage areas at the top ring. Obviously the logic of the form necessitated their presence, and so glass windows have to be covered with specially treated curtains.

Adjoining the museum on the Mall side is the elongated sculpture garden, 356 by 156 feet, turned parallel to the length of the Mall. Simply a sunken court, 14 feet deep in places and gravel-lined, it affords an unexpected air of surreality to the museum’s collection. The garden may be visually interesting in a bleak sort of way, but is not pleasant to walk through, since it was not considered necessary to include grass or many trees in this “garden.” Linkage back to the museum heightens the sense of the bizarre, and the Kafkaesque estrangement: a funnel-shaped tunnel under a road ends upon stairs, which in turn lead back up to the fountain court, instead of connecting the garden directly to the basement exhibition level. (Incidentally this level, within the podiumlike base of the museum, boasts the freedom a large square space allows. Here an arrangement of platforms and enclosing planes define a sculpture installation that is by far the most dramatic in the museum.)

Aside from its formal and functional qualities, the Hirshhorn Museum exists as an important metaphor. In its physical form and through its handling of architectural elements, the building exquisitely expresses the cultural context from which it sprung, and the political, economic and social forces that determined its existence. These factors shaped the design of the museum as much as any architect or client.

The mechanisms that brought the Hirshhorn Museum into physical being operated on two obvious levels. One, the publicly overt level represents the stated objective actions (legislation, contractual agreements, funding) and the strategies effecting those actions (congressional hearings, requests for proposals from architects). At the second level are the covert, subjective personal set of activities (special contacts, friendly favors, deals). It is at this second level that the strategies of the first level were often circumvented. As the following events will show, a small group of men were able to manipulate and maneuver around (in the name of art) a nominally democratic process. Their covert strategies were able to defeat that process all along the way—primarily because few questioned their “good” deeds at the right time.

It would be wrong to accuse anyone of evil intentions. This is simply a story of three characters in search of a history, in which the declared ends were subverted by camouflaged means. One man sought immortality through a monument on the Mall; another aspired to public recognition through the aggrandizement of a governmental cultural institution; the third, a leader of the U.S. government, dreamed of acceptance as an enlightened patron of the arts, a characteristic of his predecessor. And the architects, of course, became involved as supporting players in the quest, through a longing for the reinforcement of previously acquired architectural status.

The overt history of the Hirshhorn Museum began in 1966. In May of that year, Joseph Hirshhorn, self-made Latvian immigrant, worth $100 million through stock deals and uranium investments, gave 4000 paintings and 1600 pieces of sculpture to the Smithsonian Institution. One of the largest privately owned collections of art around, it was said to be worth $25 to $50 million. Countries had literally fought for it, according to legend, from England to Israel, Switzerland to Italy. Even Nelson Rockefeller wanted to build a museum for the collection on the Purchase campus of the State University of New York. But an agreement, negotiated in secrecy between Lyndon Johnson, Joseph Hirshhorn and S. Dillon Ripley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, guaranteed its future as part of the Smithsonian. This institution would fund and operate it as a free museum. Congress was asked by LBJ to authorize the plans to construct a new museum building on the Washington Mall, with financial appropriations to be voted on later. Before legislation could be passed, however, hearings had to be held by a House and Senate public buildings and grounds subcommittee of the Committee on Public Works.

At the hearings in 1966, the site was discussed. Located between 7th and 9th Streets, and Jefferson and Independence Avenues-, the new museum would adjoin the main Smithsonian office building, a gothic revival fantasy designed by James Renwick in 1849, and the almost-as-unique Art and Industries Building, designed in 1879 by Cluss and Schulze. However, a building already sat on this patch of the Mall. Owned by the Department of Defense, the 1863 three-story brick building, housing the Armed Forces Medical Museum and Institute of Pathology, was somewhat of an embarrassment. It had just been given the status of a National Historic Landmark the year before. Now it would have to be torn down. The loophole around the landmark’s hands-off designation was found: the collections were declared worthy of landmark status, not the building. While several medical people at the hearings testified and objected to the building being torn down, the administrators for the building agreed to relocate the labs for the Institute of Pathology to Walter Reed Hospital, and erect a new building there to house the Medical Museum.

The details of the agreement between Joseph Hirsh-horn, the Joseph Hirshhorn Foundation Inc. and the Smithsonian were not questioned at the time. Not only did the agreement name a site on the Mall, but also Joseph Hirshhorn was to have the building named after him “in perpetuity.” The architects would be chosen by the donor and Dillon Ripley, the plans specifically approved by both the donor and the Smithsonian secretary. It was agreed that the government would pay for the building, but Hirshhorn and the foundation would care for the works of art between the agreement date and the time when title would pass to the Smithsonian. It was also made clear that if the museum and sculpture garden were not constructed and completed within five years, the agreement would be null and void. Thus the document made rather explicit the fact that authorization by Congress, appropriation of funds, the selection of architect, and approval of plans would have to proceed with unusual dispatch.1

The legislation that was passed that November also wrote into law the composition of a board of trustees: four appointed by the president among nominations submitted by Joseph Hirshhorn, and four appointed by the president from nominations submitted by the Smithsonian. They would serve six-year terms, while the chief justice of the U.S. and the secretary of the Smithsonian would participate as ex-officio members.2

Before going into the aftermath of the events, it is already clear that this is a very unusual type of agreement. How unique the agreement was would be revealed continually over the next several years.

The idea for a museum of modern art to be administered by the Smithsonian had historical precedent. Curator, writer, and well-publicized critic of the Hirsh-horn Robert Hilton Simmons and other sources have defended the Smithsonian’s own National Collection of Fine Arts as having that role. According to 1938 enabling legislation, they aver, a “national museum of modern art” was to be created, with the understanding that the Smithsonian’s National Collection of Fine Arts (undergoing a name change from National Gallery of Art) would occupy that position.

Between 1938 and 1968 the NCFA continued to operate in various halls and buildings belonging to the Smithsonian, when in 1968 it moved into the renovated Old Patent Office (now called the National Portrait Gallery). When the building was given over to the NCFA in 1958, legislation again stated that the NCFA would provide “an important program of contemporary art” and it was hoped to attract gifts from citizens through the country.

So it was no wonder that when former director of the NCFA, David W. Scott, took over the NCFA in 1963, he began to think of these possible citizen-donors. He evidently heard about Joseph Hirshhorn’s sashays with the U.S. Government as early as 1964, for on June 12, he wrote a memo to S. Dillon Ripley, new Smithsonian secretary, about the possibility of a donation from Hirshhorn for the NCFA building.3 Scott felt a “logical and most desirable solution to the problem would be to erect a strikingly handsome pavilion-gallery on the Mall, providing for exhibition of American and contemporary art, and leaving all other NCFA functions in the Patent Office Building.” The 1938 Act, Scott recalled, had authorized a site on the Mall for an NCFA building. “If the pavilion were designed to give the effect of lightness and openness,” Scott suggested, “it could be associated with the sculpture court proposed in the Pennsylvania Avenue plan for the space between the Museum of Natural History and the National Gallery.” In a proposal drafted in December, Scott also made it clear how the Hirshhorn collection would be administered—by the NCFA, with “Mr. [Abram] Lerner . . . appointed Curator of Sculpture with supervisory responsibility for the sculpture court and its galleries as well as other sculpture of the NCFA.” But “the paintings of the Hirshhorn Collection would be under the supervision of the curator of painting of the NCFA,” and “general curatorial policy subject to review by the NCFA Committee of Curators.”4 While Scott’s suggestions were no doubt extremely logical, it appears naive, in view of subsequent events, for Scott to have assumed the NCFA could play such a significant part in the deal.

Apparently, Hirschhorn and Ripley didn’t agree with some of the NCFA’s aims. (Abram Lerner, then curator of the Hirshhorn collection and now director of the Hirshhorn Museum, couldn’t have been too enthusiastic about Scott’s proposals either.) Eventually Scott was informed that the 1938 mandate would be transferred to the Hirshhorn Museum; subsequently Scott resigned. The NCFA is now known for its panoramic “history” of American art. As Robert Simmons concludes from this set of events, “Even in the jungle world of business such actions as razing the Armed Forces Medical Museum, and usurping the legislative mandate of the NCFA would be considered harsh.”5

The design of the circular monolith seems to have equally inauspicious motives behind it. Smithsonian officials at the 1966 hearings acknowledged that the museum’s architects, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, saw the museum as implementing their plans for a great axis extending across the Mall through Market Square, which was an integral part of the Pennsylvania Avenue plan. This plan, dealing with the design and development along that avenue between the Capitol and the White House, was being formulated by a group of professionals selected by President Kennedy. The group was led by Nathaniel Owings of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Owings had begun work on a “by-product” plan for the Mall and, so the story goes, was the first to submit a design for the Hirshhorn Museum. But, it seems that Owings had created a nonbuilding, a building partially submerged in the ground. Hirshhorn felt it was too understated. The raison d’être of the “non-building” version (which would have actually made a rather appropriate gesture to the Mall) seemed to respond to the rumor that Washington’s Commission of Fine Arts would approve no more buildings on the Mall. This nonbuilding was devised as the best strategy to deal with that situation. As it turned out, the effort was unnecessary.

It is speculated that Owings, thwarted somewhat, brought in partner Gordon Bunshaft, SOM’s supreme form-giver. In January 1967, Gordon Bunshaft, already designing the LBJ Library in Austin, was officially announced as architect for the project. By summer he had plans to present to the Fine Arts Commission and the National Capital Planning Commission. The FAC, considered official watchdog for the Mall as well as other public areas in the city, was known to have a great deal of power in influencing the city to issue or deny building permits for private and federal structures on certain strategic sites. (Its jurisdiction actually has no legal basis, since the organization operates in an advisory capacity only.) Interestingly enough, Bunshaft was a member of the FAC in 1967, and considered a formidable presence. Nevertheless, he withdrew from the Hirshhorn Museum deliberations, leaving one of his employees to present the scheme. He hardly needed to withdraw: the FAC approved the circular form and general massing of the building with nary a complaint. Questions were raised only about the 586-foot-long sunken sculpture garden crossing the Mall, and particularly the retaining walls that projected upward above the ground level.6

The scheme went next to the National Capital Planning Commission, an agency of the city with control over bulk and height, but not “design.” A member of the commission recently explained the NCPC’s impotence: Congress had already approved the site and the design. Pressured as it was by ex-officio members and different departments of Congress, this source conceded, the NCPC was impressed with the fact that they couldn’t reject the scheme without voiding the agreement between Hirshhorn and the Smithsonian. So they only questioned the sculpture garden crossing the Mall, particularly where the retaining walls rose above the surface of the Mall’s “tapis vert.” The group also balked at the National Sculpture Garden projected by the San Francisco office of SOM at the end of the axis because it would have a pool–ice skating rink amidst the sculpture7 Following those meetings, Bunshaft modified the wall heights and the garden, and the scheme continued onward. In July 1968, Congress authorized $14,197,000 for the construction of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

When the ground-breaking ceremonies were held at the beginning of 1969, Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic of the New York Times, wrote, “Only Louis XIV would call it intime.” Of the “biggest marble doughnut in the world,” Huxtable describes how it would “line up solidly and formidably with the crushing phalanx of marble mausoleums devoted to the endless aspects of American art, culture, history and technology, shepherded along both sides of the Mall by the Smithsonian Institution.” The Hirshhorn monument, she remarked, “may turn out to be a splendid engineering tomb second to nothing on the Mall for Pop pomposity, but that is another American tradition and you can chalk up a big one for the American Dream.”8

Later that year, when the bids came in too high for the travertine, SOM switched its cladding material to pink granite aggregate precast concrete panels, 7-by-14 feet, for the drum and sculpture garden walls. Rather than requesting a higher budget to cover the costs of the travertine, and jeopardize or delay the project, the Smithsonian asked for design revisions. But if there was any activity that came close to jeopardizing and delaying construction of the Hirshhorn Museum, it came in 1970, a year after groundbreaking.

In the early part of the year, the contract for construction was awarded by the General Services Administration to Piracci Construction Company of Baltimore, Maryland. The contract came to $13,799,138, a figure that included a correction of $754,375 upward from the original bid. The next lowest bidder, Norair Engineering Company, protested this correction: others agreed that Piracci was pulling a common trick of “buying in”—winning by giving the lowest bid, then claiming a mistake in calculations, to have it adjusted upward. The fact that the head of Piracci Construction, Dominic Piracci, had been convicted in 1969 on charges of bribery and convicted in 1954 of fraud and conspiracy didn’t help matters.’ While the federal government was aware of the firm’s unsavory reputation, that aspect was overlooked at the time of the bids. At any rate, to cover the “error” Joseph Hirshhorn donated $1 million for construction—$1 million earmarked in the original agreement for acquiring new art.

It was about this time that some unseemly information began to appear about the past of Joseph Hirsh-horn himself. Art writer Robert Simmons researched extensively into newspaper files and found that Hirshhorn had been arrested twice in the ’40s for violation of foreign exchange laws in Canada. In 1945, he was fined in an illegal securities sale case and for trying to smuggle $15,000 out of Canada (in those days you could exchange it for a ten-percent-rate increase in the U.S.)10 Given this background, a logical question was phrased by Gilmore D. Clarke, a member of the Commission of Fine Arts from 1932 to 1950: “Are we going to permit sites for buildings on the Mall to be utilized for the purpose of memorializing a donor and thus permit him to purchase a place in history?”11

Almost by accident, the governmental force that began to investigate all the heretofore undiscussed aspects surrounding the Hirshhorn was a House of Representatives Subcommittee on Libraries and Memorials chaired by Frank Thompson. Spurred by a report from the General Accounting Office questioning the fiscal policies of the Smithsonian Institution, Thompson urged the first general review of the Smithsonian operations since 1855. During six-day hearings, Robert Simmons forced attention on some of the expenditures relating to the Hirshhorn. Simmons, for example, testified that already $308,000 had been appropriated by the government for operation of the curatorial offices and about $190,000 for maintenance (guards and labor for storage in the warehouse). Since, according to the 1966 agreement, Hirshhorn was picking up the entire interim cost of care and maintenance for the collection until the title would pass over to the Smithsonian, Thompson was intrigued by this testimony. But he did not get a straight answer from James Bradley (undersecretary for the Smithsonian). Bradley simply said that the provisions of the agreement so far had been met.12

Since the hearings were held without a special resolution enabling subpoena power, much of the testimony could be called a coverup. Nevertheless, questions kept arising: Why had a board of trustees not been appointed? As Thompson pointed out, Hirshhorn was free to buy art, put it into the collection and remove existing works, until title passed to the Smithsonian on completion of the building.

In the report by the Committee on House Administration on the Smithsonian, the subcommittee made clear, albeit belatedly, that it felt it had been circumvented in the rather mild 1966 hearings on the Hirshhorn.13 The Smithsonian had simply drafted the legislation for the Hirshhorn Museum, then referred it to the House and Senate Public Works Committee for the 1966 hearings. As committee member, John Brademas stated in the 1970 hearings, “There is something unseemly and in rather bad taste about the haste with which the Hirshhorn decision has been jammed down our throats.” Brademas also expressed concern that there had been no public hearings on such a significant undertaking, much less “consultation with the members of the subcommittee that presumably has jurisdiction over the Smithsonian.”

While analyzing all these sticky issues, the subcommittee began taking another look at the design of the sculpture garden. Brademas confessed he was not just interested in Hirshhorn’s character, but the character of the architecture and the effect of the design on the Mall. Before ground would be broken for the sculpture garden, Brademas urged that the committee study its design; that an elongated hole might mar the Mall. As a result the subcommittee recommended that no further action be taken on the sculpture garden until it was reviewed by the Subcommittee on Libraries and Memorials, the Subcommittee on Public Works, Buildings and Grounds, and relevant appropriations committees.

In February 1971, Thompson introduced a bill which would actually prevent building the cross-axis sculpture garden, and force the Smithsonian to go elsewhere. Obviously, it didn’t get very far. But at that point, several people were reported finally to express misgivings—ex-Chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission Elizabeth Rowe and Director of the National Park Service, George Hartzog Jr., for example. The comment was made that “Ripley was more concerned about getting the Joseph Hirshhorn collection than good design.”14

As the opposition to the Hirshhorn Museum kept mounting, a new revised design for the sculpture garden went quickly to the Fine Arts Commission. The new design showed a smaller garden turned 90° to become parallel to the Mall, and sitting in one of the Mall’s tree-lined panels.

The new sunken garden would be only 360 feet long instead of the original 586 feet, 156 feet wide instead of the original 142 feet, and 14 feet deep with one section only six feet below the Mall’s surface. But while the Fine Arts Commission approved the new location and design, the National Capital Planning Commission didn’t—at first. Initially, it appears the Planning Commission voted to kill the sculpture garden completely. Ripley then appeared and warned that Joseph Hirshhorn would pull out, and the art would be lost completely. George Hartzog, while apparently having had previous misgivings, now helped turn the vote, by saying the new proposal met the approval of the National Park Service and Interior Secretary Rogers Morton.15

Nevertheless, Congress was still having second thoughts—even about the new design of the sculpture garden. Senator James B. Allen began questioning the legality of the original agreement, and proposed a Senate joint resolution that would amend the 1966 act. The bill called the agreement between Hirshhorn, the Hirshhorn Foundation, and the Smithsonian null and void. It went on to suggest that land could be appropriated to the Smithsonian for the exhibition of art or science, the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents could prepare architectural designs, then submit the plans this time around to Congress for approval and for authorization to build—before construction began.

Essentially, James B. Allen objected to the Hirshhorn agreement placing the museum and sculpture garden beyond the jurisdiction of the watchdog planning and design agencies in Washington. He wrote in June, “Under the terms of the agreement, proposed gifts were made contigent on such a power of final approval in the donor. By reason of this contingency, should the Fine Arts Commission or the National Capital Planning Commission in the exercise of unfettered judgment, disapprove the plans and designs approved by Joseph Hirshhorn, the offer of the gifts may be withdrawn.”16

Allen also pinpointed the ethical, legal and esthetic questions implicit in these doings. “Is it ethically proper to condition proposed philanthropy on the abdicationof statutory responsibility by public agencies?” he asked. Would the location and the design of the project be approved by the Fine Arts Commission independent of the threat of loss of the proposed gifts, if the Commission didn’t approve of the final design?“ Thus Allen called the contract ”ultra vires."

Ripley replied very hastily to these allegations, addressing John McClellan, chairman of the Committee on Government Operations in the Senate." Not only would SJ Resolution 45 lose the Hirshhorn art collection valued at $25 million in 1966 and $50 million in 1970, Ripley argued, but contracts for building would have to be paid up, of which less than one-third was recoverable. It would also cost $700,000 to stop the sculpture garden, he warned. Although Senator Allen had scheduled hearings, the pressure was on, and the hearings were soon quashed.

But it wasn’t over yet. In 1972, when the Smithsonian had to take the budget for the Hirshhorn before Congress, Joseph Hirshhorn gave 326 additional works to the museum, valued at $7 million, the day before the hearings. Included in this bundle were major works by Leger, Matisse, Mondrian, and Picasso, not to mention Picasso’s bronze Woman With A Baby Carriage.18 It was not until the following year, however, that the mounting costs of the Hirshhorn Museum were becoming evident. Congress had appropriated $14.2 million, Hirshhorn himself had donated $1 million, but Piracci now was claiming an extra $1 million in costs due to government delays.

With their $1 million claim before the General Services Administration, Smithsonian officials reportedly appeared before a House appropriations subcommittee and broke it to them that claims might increase costs $4.6 million, instead of $1 million.19 Today, GSA states total project costs are $15,993,000, with three appeals on cost overruns amounting to a total of $1,309,000. A member of Congress, however, reports that new figures by the General Accounting Office estimate cost overruns at $2 million.