The veteran philanthropist, William W. Corcoran, was born in 1798. He began his business career in Georgetown, but for many years he has been a resident of Washington. At twenty he went into business for himself, beginning as an auctioneer. After several years of successful business he was obliged to suspend, during the depressed times of 1838.
After this he was married to the beautiful daughter of Commodore Morris, of the United States Navy, much to the disgust of that gentleman, who little dreamed what an illustrious son-in-law Mr. Corcoran was destined to become. Some years of hard struggle followed, but at last it was found that he had won for himself a somewhat extended reputation as a financier, which gained for him a partnership with the successful banker, Riggs. This firm began to deal in United States Government securities, which were then at a low ebb abroad. Being a boy friend of George Peabody, the great London banker, his firm was enabled to materially aid the Government in its financial straits during the Mexican war. As the firm prospered, Mr. Corcoran became wealthy, and this money he laid out in Washington real estate, the rapid rise of which made him a millionaire. As Mr. Corcoran prospered he began to think of those old debts. When he had failed he secured favorable terms with his creditors, and legally was not bound for one cent, but he recognized a higher obligation than law made by man: hunting up all those old customers, creditors of his, he paid them not only the principal, but the interest that had been accumulating all these years. By this one act we gain a glimpse of the inner heart and impulses of this great and good man.
Thousands of dollars found their way into the hands of charity, but then his desire to aid and gratify humanity was not satisfied.
On May 10th, 1869, the grounds and institution for the Corcoran Art Gallery was deeded to trustees, and later was incorporated by Congress, being exempted forever from taxation. The gallery is situated directly opposite the State, War, and Navy buildings. It has a frontage of one hundred and six feet; is built of fine, pressed brick; and is one of the most attractive buildings in the whole City of Washington. The whole building cost $250,000, and the donor placed therein his own private collection of paintings and statuary, valued at $100,000. Not satisfied with this he has added an endowment fund of $500,000. Many rare and beautiful works of art have been purchased abroad, as well as American works of rare value. Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays the gallery is free; on alternate days an admission of twenty-five cents is charged. When it is considered how many there are who would naturally take advantage of the free days, and then that the annual income is over $75,000, one can form some idea of the attractiveness of this institution. Mr. Corcoran’s desire was to elevate the American taste in the finer arts, and the thousands of visitors which the institution attracts, indicates to what an extent he has succeeded. The lower floor is devoted to statues and to the exhibition of sculpture. The second floor is occupied by several hundred rare and costly paintings, representing the advance of art during the past centuries. The gallery is, probably, all things considered, the finest of the kind in the country.
Another institution of wide celebrity is the Louisa Home, founded by Mr. Corcoran in 1871. It is a magnificent building, conspicuously situated in the most fashionable part of the city, the West End. This is a most worthy institution, designed for ladies who have been reduced from affluence to poverty, affording them a home where they can mingle with a class of people congenial to their refined natures. This building is a beautiful brick structure, four stories high, erected at a cost of $200,000. Visitors are welcome every afternoon.
These are only two of the many gifts and enterprises which originated with the venerable banker. George Peabody and William Corcoran were boys together; how similar their lives have been. Would that there were more Corcorans, more Peabodys. Mr. Corcoran has given several millions to charity and art; how we envy him—not for his wealth, but his reputation, or better, would that we could do as much good in the world as did these two great men.