Building renovation gives valuable artifacts a new home

Smithsonian museums get an award-winning climate-controlled facility for their extensive collections.


One of the most memorable cinematic images of the last three decades is the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the crate containing the Ark of the Covenant is wheeled through a giant warehouse containing countless other such crates. While, as far as I know, the federal government doesn’t have the warehouse depicted in that film, the next best thing may be the Smithsonian’s Pennsy Collections and Support Center, an unmarked 360,000-sq-ft warehouse in Landover, Md. There one can find rows of 20-ft-high shelving containing every imaginable type of artifact.

The building holds an extensive textile collection; floor-to-ceiling racks filled with 18th-century pianos; and historic films, photos, and documents. Unlike the movie warehouse, however, this is not a dusty, breezy place, but one with strict environmental controls to preserve all the treasures it contains. Given the variety of items to be preserved and types of workspaces, the building has different climate zones served by 29 rooftop air handlers and a Meefog system providing precise levels of humidification to 15 of those AHUs.

On the fast track

The workshop area shows Nederman snorkels to remove fumes from workbenches. Courtesy: Gensler Architects. Photography by Paul Warchol Photography Inc., New YorkWhen the leases for storage facilities being used by four of its museums were running out, the Smithsonian decided to look for a larger facility to consolidate those operations. In addition to being large enough, the building had to be close to downtown Washington, D.C., have easy access to transportation, and be able to service large trucks for loading and unloading. After looking at many different buildings, the Smithsonian settled on a 1960s furniture warehouse in an industrial area of Landover, Md. It met the Smithsonian’s size, location, and loading needs, but was in no shape for preserving valuable artifacts.

As part of a 15-year lease agreement, however, the building owner, Trammel Crow, agreed to pay for the necessary build out. It hired the architecture firm Gensler to oversee the renovation, and Gensler contracted with Vanderweil Engineers as the primary MEP engineers. Both groups had to operate on a compressed time schedule.

“It was fast track,” said Deb Hill, project manager for Gensler, the architecture firm overseeing the renovation. “We were dealing with seven different entities, so there were a lot of people weighing in, and they had to move.”

The building was laid out with a mix of dedicated storage spaces for some of the museums, combined with shared spaces including a cafeteria, fitness center, library, showers, workshops, and print shops for creating the signs and materials for exhibits. It also included facilities for training Smithsonian security personnel, such as xray equipement and a simulated gun range, and a central mail facility for the institution. The storage facilies needed cusom built shelving, and archival spaces had to be divided into smaller sections for fire protection. The team established 12-ft-wide routes for vehicles to move through the warehouse and separate smaller paths for people. An emergency generator was installed to power life and fire safety systems in the event of a blackout. Water sprinkler systems not only had to be installed along the ceiling, but also within many of the shelving units.

To top it all off, everything had to look good. And the end result does, with the facility winning several design awards, including an American Insitute of Architects (AIA) Maryland Honor Award for Interior Architecture.

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