The Kreegers Go Public With Family's Formidable Art

A Washington collection boasts Monet, Picasso, Henry Moore works

FOR years Washingtonians have driven by the high wall on Foxhall Road, craning their necks to peek into the place where insurance-magnate-cum-art-collector David Lloyd Kreeger, his wife, Carmen, and their two children made their home.

Today, the security gates are open, and the public (by appointment only) can explore the city's newest museum, a plan devised by the philanthropic Kreeger before he died in 1990.

Located in a residential neighborhood, where stately mansions border grand embassies, the Kreeger Museum sits on five-and-a-half acres. Kreeger contracted noted architect Philip Johnson to design the house in the 1960s, specifying that the family needed more space to accommodate a growing passion for 19th- and 20th-century paintings and sculpture.

From the outset, Mr. Johnson created a structure for both a museum and a home, says Judy Greenberg, director of the Kreeger Museum. Johnson, who designed New York City's Lincoln Center and other striking contributions to the Manhattan and Houston skylines, called his effort on Foxhall Road the ``largest three-bedroom house in the world.''

When he completed the structure in 1967, Johnson had created 9,000 square feet of modular space - composed of 22-by-22-foot geometric cubes, or barrel-vaulted bays - encased in Italian travertine marble. The teak floors, carpeted walls, and floor-to-ceiling windows offering stunning views of the surrounding lush woods all combine for a warm and homey feeling.

Visitors sense that intimacy after crossing the circular driveway and stepping up to the front doorbell. There, they are greeted by trained docents (art students from local colleges and universities) who serve as guides for the two-hour tour. (The museum houses 180 artworks.) The front hall opens into the Great Hall, a vast 22-by-66-foot space comprising barrel-vaulted bays designed for superb acoustics.

For Kreeger, sound was as important as sight. At the far end of this room sits a grand piano and a music stand, reminders of the many private concerts Kreeger (an accomplished violinist) gave here with friends Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zuckerman, and others. While enjoying the music, concert guests could also take in a large part of the Kreeger collection. The Great Hall's artists include Picasso, Mondrian, Chagall, Braque, Leger, Degas, and Van Gogh. Ms. Greenberg says there are plans to ``fill this house with music once again'' - an idea Kreeger would have liked.

On one side of the great room, a glass wall shows off a dramatic atrium, replete with exotic plants, including a bougainvillea. But the eye is then led back indoors to the other side of the atrium, where, behind another glass wall is a perfectly framed view of Felix Ziem's ``Venice'' (1850).

``You can't look at the art without the architecture becoming part of it,'' Greenberg says.

Doorless openings lead the visitor from one room to the next, and the combination of natural and subtle artificial lighting gives continuity to the varied collection on this ground floor. Enter the dining room, for example, and discover a showplace for nine Monets, a Renoir, a Pissaro, and other Impressionists. While some critics have called Kreeger's ``roomful of Monets'' a bunch of second-rate paintings, the very size of the collection, all assembled in one room, is a stunning display.

Mrs. Kreeger, who took all her meals in this room, must have had trouble choosing just which direction to fix her gaze. One wonders which view she found more alluring: the calming pastels of Monet's land- and seascapes or the sculpture-garden view provided by the room's oversized windows.

A walk outside takes the visitor into a private display that traverses centuries. The works, including modern masters such as Auguste Rodin and Isamu Noguchi, share patio space with works by Henry Moore and David Smith. Greenberg says when people come to this part of the tour, they linger outside enjoying the sculpture and the panoramic views of the grounds.

An appropriate transition from the soothing first-floor gallery to the lower level's 20th-century collection is Johnson's bronze bannister (a similar one exists in Lincoln Center's New York State Theater), inspired by a Jackson Pollock.

Below, there is a rich assortment of Cubists, colorists, and other contemporary works. Among the most stunning is Frank Stella's bold-colored ``Flin-Flon XIII.'' An entire room is devoted to Kreeger's African tribal pieces, which Greenberg has juxtaposed with contemporary works.

* The museum is open by appointment Tuesday through Saturday with two tours per day. Telephone: (202) 338-3552.

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