William Wilson Corcoran
|Died||February 24, 1888 (aged 89)|
|Occupation||Banker, philanthropist, and art collector|
(m. 1835; her death 1840)
Corcoran was born on December 27, 1798 in Georgetown in the District of Columbia. He was one of 12 children (six boys and six girls), six of whom survived to maturity, born to Thomas Corcoran (1754-1830), a well-to-do merchant twice elected as mayor of Georgetown, and Hannah Lemmon (1765-1823). His father was born in Ireland, settled in Georgetown in 1788, and established a leather business.
William Corcoran was raised in Georgetown where he studied classics and mathematics at local private schools run by Alexander Kirk and the Reverend Addison Belt, and also took classes for a year at Georgetown College, the predecessor of Georgetown University. Instead of finishing his education, he joined the family business and developed a successful business career.
Corcoran entered business at the age of 17, working in dry goods store owned by two brothers, and opened his own branch store two years later. Corcoran brothers established a wholesale auction and commission business, but their ventures failed after the Panic of 1819. He worked in another family business, and in 1828, he took control of large amount of real estate from his father.
In 1837, Corcoran established a brokerage firm on Pennsylvania Avenue at 15th Street. He was successful and in 1840 entered into a partnership with George Washington Riggs, a son of Elisha Riggs. The Corcoran and Riggs private banking firm enjoyed the patronage of Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury and prospered after it re-sold to investors $5 million of U.S. Treasury notes in 1843. In 1845, it purchased the former Second Bank of the United States building located on 15th Street at New York Avenue.
In Spring 1847, the Corcoran and Riggs sold to investors at home and abroad the bulk of two issues of the U.S. Treasury Mexican War bonds; Corcoran's earnings were $1 million. In 1854, Corcoran retired from Corcoran and Riggs to focus on his investments in real estate, land grants, armaments, railroads, as well as pursue pleasure and philanthropic endeavors.
In 1854, after his retirement, he devoted himself and his substantial fortune to art and philanthropy. In 1848, Corcoran had purchased 15 acres (6 ha) of land for Oak Hill Cemetery, which overlooks Rock Creek Park. He organized the Oak Hill Cemetery Company to oversee the cemetery, which was formally incorporated by Act of Congress on March 3, 1849. Corcoran paid for the construction of a Gothic Revival chapel in Oak Hill Cemetery, commonly known as the Renwick Chapel.
Corcoran also established a $10,000 fund, administered by the Benevolent Society, to purchase firewood for the poor in Georgetown. Corcoran also gave many gifts to several universities, including The George Washington University, the Maryland Agricultural College, the College of William and Mary, and Washington and Lee University. Corcoran also contributed to a fund to purchase George Washington's Mount Vernon estate, after his family could no longer keep it up, and the federal government refused to purchase it. One of William Wilson Corcoran's longtime business associate and friend was the renowned George Peabody.
In contrast to many contemporary art patrons, Corcoran was not exclusively interested in European works, and he assembled one of the first important collections of American art. By the mid-1850s his pictures and sculpture were overflowing his mansion on Lafayette Square and he hired the foremost architect of the day, James Renwick, to build a picture gallery in the Second Empire style on Pennsylvania Avenue. Before it was ready, however, the Civil War began, and Corcoran, a Southern sympathizer, left Washington for Paris, where his son-in-law, George Eustis Jr., was a representative of the Confederacy.
Architect James Renwick was commissioned in 1859 to a museum building to house William Wilson Corcoran's growing art collection. Corcoran was a southern sympathizer and good friend of Robert E. Lee, and felt it opportune to leave for Europe during the Civil War. The half-finished building designed by Renwick was taken over by the U.S. Government and used as a supply depot. When the war was over, Corcoran returned to Washington; the building was finished in 1869 and the Corcoran Gallery of Art opened in 1874, but the structure was soon outgrown. A new building for the Corcoran Gallery of Art and its nascent school of art (now the Corcoran College of Art + Design) was designed by American architect Ernest Flagg in the Beaux-Arts Style and completed in 1897, nine years after Corcoran's death. The façade of the building reflects the "Neo-Grec," an offshoot of the Beaux-Arts style that attempted to reflect the functions of the building by revealing detailed and decorative accents on the exterior. The Corcoran's first home is now the Renwick Gallery, a Smithsonian museum.
Corcoran made many other important bequests to the people of Washington, among them the Louise Home for Women, several departments of the Columbian University (now the George Washington University), and the land and half the construction costs for what is now the Church of the Ascension and Saint Agnes. Corcoran was also the President of the Corporation of Columbian (George Washington) University. Early in 1883, Corcoran arranged to have the body of John Howard Payne returned to the United States, an expense he personally bore. Payne, actor, poet, and author of "Home! Sweet Home!" had been the United States Consul to the Bey of Tunis in 1852 and had died there. Payne had been good friends of Corcoran and his business partner, George W. Riggs in 1850, prior to Payne's second appointment as Consul to Tunis.
In 1835, Corcoran eloped and married Louise Morris (1818-1840), who was the daughter of Commodore Charles Morris (1784-1856) and the older sister of Robert Murray Morris (1824-1896). Before his wife's early death on November 21, 1840, they had three children, however, only one survived into adulthood:
Through his surviving daughter Louise, he was the grandfather of William Corcoran Eustis (1862-1921) and Louise Marie Eustis Hitchcock (1867-1934), who married Thomas Hitchcock (1860-1941), in 1891.
The bank Corcoran co-founded in 1840 existed as Riggs Bank up until 2005, when it was taken over by PNC Bank. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. was one of the oldest American private museums focusing on American art until it was dissolved in 2014 with its holdings transferred to the National Gallery of Art. Corcoran has a street named after him in the Dupont Circle neighborhood in the District of Columbia between Q street and R street NW, one block away from Riggs Street. As well, the Corcoron neighborhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota which is bounded by East Lake Street to the north, East 36th Street to the south, Hiawatha Avenue to the east, and Cedar Avenue to the west, is named for William Corcoran.
Mr. W.W. Corcoran died at 6:30 this morning. He passed away quietly and peacefully. ...
It was founded in 1869 by William Wilson Corcoran, and its permanent collection of 19th-century American art is said to be one of the best in the nation
Capt. William Corcoran Eustis, of Washington, D. C., personal secretary to Gen. John J. Pershing during the war, died tonight following the recurrence of an attack of pneumonia contracted in France. He was 60 [sic] years old.