Freer Gallery of Art
Italian Renaissance style museum and courtyard
In 1906 industrialist Charles L. Freer (1854–1919) donated his exceptional collection of Asian and American art to the Smithsonian Institution and the people of the United States. His personal friend, the acclaimed architect, landscape architect, and illustrator Charles A. Platt (1861–1933), designed an Italian Renaissance style museum and courtyard in 1918 to house Freer’s unsurpassed holdings of Asian art and the works of American expatriate artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). Platt intended the courtyard garden to be a place for quiet introspection when the museum opened to the public in 1923.
The courtyard's elegant design fosters contemplation and relaxation beyond the walls of the museum. It also serves a practical function. Since the museum was constructed in the days before central air conditioning and climate control, large glass doors located between the columns of the loggia, as well as windows behind the parapet, originally allowed air and light to enter the galleries. With advances in technology and growing concerns about preserving the objects on view, the courtyard was later closed off to prevent the fluctuations in humidity and temperature than can damage works of art.
Lush, green vegetation and the fountain’s cascading water, combined with the symmetrical layout of the arches and walkways, create a tranquil space for reflection and rest. Layers of trees, bushes, and low plantings draw the visitor’s eye from the classical decoration of the roofline down to the central fountain. Boxwood hedges emphasize the ordered design of the brick and stonework, while Persian ironwood trees and Japanese maples filter shade from the afternoon sun. In winter, the bare branches of the trees cast calligraphic silhouettes, reminiscent of the Asian works of art on view within the Freer Gallery of Art.