Travel

Kreeger-ly: Mirós and Mozart at this lustrous D.C. museum

  • The Delta Shuttle Sheet
  • |
  • March 22, 2001

by Karen Feld

WASHINGTON’S LUXURIOUS FOXHALL ROAD is a quiet residential street lined with embassies and mansions, not a place where you’d expect to find a private art museum. But the Kreeger Museum, hidden here on 5 acres, wasn’t always a museum. It was originally built as a home for Carmen and David Lloyd Kreeger and their eclectic art collection, and it still has the warm feeling conveyed by its benefactors. Kreeger, who was chairman and CEO of auto-insurer GEICO Corporation, was well-respected in the D.C. community not only as a savvy lawyer and businessman, but also as a philanthropist, an art collector and an accomplished musician. He served as president of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the National Symphony Orchestra.

The three-bedroom house designed by Philip Johnson, a noted contemporary architect with a passion for art, was completed in 1967. When the Kreegers first sat down with Johnson to discuss the project-building a home for their art collection-he explained that he wasn’t doing any more residential projects. David Lloyd Kreeger replied, “Well let me ask you this, Philip, would you feel comfortable designing a museum? Just don’t tell your partner that Carmen and I are going to live in it.”

Although the result was considered contemporary at the time, and has been called one of Johnson’s early attempts in postmodernism, it still has a timeless, classical quality. Marble was shipped from Italy for the construction. Fourteen thousand of the 24,000 square feet are used as gallery space, and because Kreeger was an accomplished musician, the Great Hall with its 25-foot-high domed ceiling doubled as a concert hall where he could play his Stradivarius violin. “Dad loved music and making music with friends,” recalls his son Peter Kreeger. He was frequently joined by Isaac Stern, Pablo Casals and Pinchas Zukerman. Guests can hear a concert perfectly from any spot in the room. “My father loved being involved-his life blossomed after he retired from GEICO,” says Kreeger. “The house was built for the music; the art was the trimming.”

Once, according to his son, the elder Kreeger invited Itzhak Perlman back to the house to play after a concert. Perlman regretfully told him that he had promised his agent he wouldn’t perform in a private home‹but he was intrigued when Kreeger offered to show him sheet music of The Upside Down Mozart Duet. Called the “Scherzo Duetto” by the composer, the piece is set on a table and the players face each other, each starting at what appears to be the top of the piece. Perlman used one of the two Stradivarius violins Kreeger kept for such occasions, and quipped, “Since I didn¹t play my violin, I didn’t play in your home.”

In 1994, several years after Kreeger’s death, the David Lloyd Kreeger Foundation opened the house as an actual-and quite suitable-museum. “The structure is sculptural and provides a spiritual quality for the viewer,” says Judy Greenberg, the museum’s director.
“It was important for the Kreegers to be involved in the Washington community,” continues Greenberg, a hands-on director and former artist herself. Continuing outreach includes offering master classes free of charge. Student quartets are invited to perform, concerts are open to the public and Washington artists give a series of lectures. The museum has also initiated a partnership program in which students from D.C. schools work alongside internationally known sculptors.

The permanent collection of approximately 200 paintings plus sculpture is drawn from the Kreegers’ personal collection. It boasts nine Monets, 11 Picassos (including an early one, “Café de La Rotonde” from 1901) and 38 Mirós, as well as works by Kandinsky, Dubuffet and Frank Stella. The Monet Room, which overlooks the Sculpture Terrace, was the dining room where Carmen Kreeger enjoyed eating most meals while looking at not only a natural wooded landscape but also sculptures by Henry Moore, Jean Arp and Isamu Noguchi. “It flows beautifully-there’s a sense of connection,” says Greenberg. “It’s a very personal collection. They wanted to live it.”

THE KREEGER MUSEUM, 2401 Foxhall Road NW, Washington, D.C.; 202-337-3552; www.kreegermuseum.org. Open by appointment Tuesday through Saturday, the museum accommodates 80 visitors a day (40 in the morning, 40 in the afternoon) on docent-led tours. A $5 donation is requested.