The building was designed to house the Smithsonian Institution’s new contemporary art collection. Both the museum building and the collection were gifts of Joseph Hirshhorn, a uranium and mining magnate. In 1964 Sidney Dillon Ripley, the secretary of the Smithsonian, contacted Hirshhorn in order to encourage him to bequeath his collection of contemporary art to the Smithsonian (Hyams, 142). Hirshhorn’s attorney contacted Ripley and expressed Hirshhorn’s desire to have the museum named after him in order to donate his collection. Ripley agreed and continued to pursue the issue with Hirshhorn (Hyams, 142-43). On May 17, 1965, Hirshhorn expressed his terms, including that the collection be housed in a modern museum on the Mall to be named after him in perpetuity (Hyams, 144). On May 17, 1966 a proposed bill stipulated that Hirshhorn’s gift be accepted (Hyams, 153). It sparked controversy in Congress: “The museum site was contested, its name opposed, its donor disparaged, its sponsor investigated, appropriations delayed” (Hyams, 155). By September the bill had passed, including a construction budget of $15 million (Hyams, 157).
The building is a three-story tall cylindrical concrete building raised fourteen feet on four massive pylons with a circular open court (Hyams, 183-84). The skin of the cylinder does not open to the exterior but for a single elongated balcony overlooking the Mall. Windows open in the interior towards the courtyard. The two floors containing the galleries consist of an inner and an outer ring separated by curved wall partitions so that paintings and sculpture may be exhibited separately. The inner and outer perimeters of the hollow cylinder are slightly eccentric – by only four feet.
The building was constructed using 14'-0" x 7'-0" precast concrete panels (White).
The building sits on the National Mall and forms part of the collection of buildings of the Smithsonian Institution.
The building made use of 14'-0" x 7'-0" precast concrete panels (White). These had a granite-chip finish (Hyams, 167).
The prospect of the erection of a modernist building on the Mall became the cause of intense controversy. Earlier (1939) the Smithsonian Institution had sponsored a design competition for a museum of contemporary art won by Eliel and Eero Saarinen and J. Robert F. Swanson, but the project was never built. The donor’s insistence on a building bearing his name in perpetuity led to further controversy. A 1970 column in the Washington Post wondered how a building “intended to memorialize a stock manipulator and convicted money smuggler” was “accorded an honored spot on Washington’s historic Mall” (Anderson). For the construction of the Hirshhorn Museum, the Army Medical Museum was demolished, after the National Park Service clarified that National Historic Landmark status was accorded only to the collections, and not the building (Hyams, 157).
With the presentation of Bunshaft’s design of the museum “all hell broke loose,” and reporters “outdid one another in making fun of the circular design” (Kammen, 265). Ada Louise Huxtable focused on its scale and monumentality and called it “the largest marble doughnut in the world.” (“Marble Home Seen as a Realization of American Dream”). Unease at the building’s modern design persisted even after it opened. In a 1974 review in the Washington Post it was described as “an unabashed manifesto of the architecture of our time – the best and the worst of it” (Von Eckardt). This very mixed review concluded that although one could admire the building, one would “hardly love it.” It has been often compared to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, even though the rotunda of the 1959 building is small enough to fit inside the Hirshhorn’s courtyard.
The building is the first manifestation of the U.S. government’s desire to develop a contemporary art collection for display on the Mall (Krinsky, 251). It represents the culmination of Joseph Hirshhorn’s patronage of twentieth century art.
The Hirshhorn Museum is a fine late modernist building with a design and construction history that speaks about the acceptance of modernist architecture in America.
Anderson, Jack. “Mall Memorial to Hirshhorn Probed.” Washington Post, Times Herald 11 April 1970, C11.
Fletcher, Valerie J. A Garden for Art: Outdoor Sculpture at the Hirshhorn Museum. Washington, D.C.: Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in association with Thames and Hudson, 1998.
Hyams, Barry. Hirshhorn, Medici from Brooklyn: A Biography. New York: Dutton, 1979.
Kammen, Michael G. Visual Shock: A History of Art Controversies in American Culture. New York: Knopf, 2006.
Krinsky, Carol Herselle. Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. New York: Architectural History Foundation, 1988.
Von Eckardt, Wolfgang. “Hirshhorn Enclave: You May Admire It, But You’ll Hardly Love It.” Washington Post 28 September 1974: B1+.
White, Jean M. “Museum of the Future.” Washington Post 15 April 1973: M1+.