William Wilson Corcoran

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William Wilson Corcoran
William Wilson Corcoran - Brady-Handy.jpg
Born Georgetown, Washington, DC (1798-12-27)December 27, 1798
Died February 24, 1888(1888-02-24) (aged 89)
Washington, DC
Spouse(s) Louise Morris
William Corcoran in 1867

William Wilson Corcoran (December 27, 1798 – February 24, 1888) was an American banker, philanthropist, and art collector.[1] He started the Corcoran Gallery of Art.[2]


Corcoran was born on December 27, 1798 in Georgetown in the District of Columbia, the son of Thomas Corcoran, a well-to-do merchant whom the people of Georgetown twice elected as mayor, and Hannah Lemmon. His father was born in Ireland, settled in Georgetown in 1788, and established a leather business.[3] 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 joined the Potomac Lodge No. 5 of Free and Accepted Masons in Georgetown and was raised as a Master Mason on July 26, 1827.[4][5]

In 1835, Corcoran eloped and married Louise Morris, who was the daughter of Commodore Charles Morris. His wife died in 1840, but not before they had three children — Harriet Louise, Louise Morris, and Charles Morris. The middle child, Louise Morris (1838–1867), was the only one to survive into adulthood;[6] she later married George Eustis, Jr.. After his wife died in 1841, Corcoran chose not to marry again. He died on February 24, 1888 in Washington, DC.[1]


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,[6] and in 1828, he took control of large amount of real estate from his father.[7]

Corcoran was employed as a clerk at the Bank of Columbia at Georgetown branch, and then as a real estate and loan manager at the Second Bank of the United States in Washington.[8]

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.[9] In 1845, it purchased the former Second Bank of the United States building located on 15th Street at New York Avenue.[6] 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.[8]


In 1854, Corcoran was able to retire with a substantial fortune and devote himself to art and philanthropy.[7] 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.[10] 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.[6] 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.[11]


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.


  1. ^ a b "A Philanthropist's Death. Mr. Corcoran Passes Quietly Away. The Life And Work Of Washington's Most Prominent Citizen. His Wealth And Benefactions". New York Times. February 25, 1888. Retrieved 2014-08-29. Mr. W.W. Corcoran died at 6:30 this morning. He passed away quietly and peacefully. ... 
  2. ^ "'Tragedy of Errors' Engulfs the Corcoran". New York Times. September 18, 1989. Retrieved 2014-08-29. 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 
  3. ^ Ecker, Grace Dunlop (1933). A Portrait of Old Georgetown. Garrett & Massie, Inc. p. 15. 
  4. ^ Potomac Lodge #5: The Gavel Today, The Masons of Gergetown
  5. ^ District of Columbia list of historic sites, DC.gov
  6. ^ a b c d Ecker, Grace Dunlop (1933). A Portrait of Old Georgetown. Garrett & Massie, Inc. pp. 126–139. 
  7. ^ a b Henderson, Helen Weston (1915). The Art Treasures of Washington: An Account of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. L. C. Page & Company. pp. 21–25. 
  8. ^ a b Janet L. Coryell. Corcoran, William Wilson. American National Biography Online. February 2000. Retrieved December 27, 2015.
  9. ^ Chevy Chase Trust Company and Its Heritage – Part 1: From Corcoran to Riggs
  10. ^ Jackson, Richard Plummer (1878). The Chronicles of Georgetown, D.C., from 1751-1878. Washington, D.C.: R. O. Polkinhorn. pp. 264–268. OCLC 2276711. Retrieved July 19, 2009. 
  11. ^ Brainard, Charles Henry (1885). John Howard Payne: A Biographical Sketch of the Author of "Home, Sweet Home". Washington, D. C.: G. A. Coolidge. pp. 51–52, 71 ff. 

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