I did a little research and it seems like GW's takeover of the Corcoran was inevitable and long overdue. Here is the way I see it:
The more I read about William Wilson Corcoran and the way he simultaneously nurtured Columbian College, which is now George Washington University, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the more I am assured he would approve of what GW is planning for the Corcoran. Because GW officials are definitely acting in the spirit of Corcoran as they work to integrate and renovate the 118-year-old building and its School of Art.
Corcoran was the son of one of Columbian College’s founding trustees and after amassing a fortune in banking he adopted the fledgling college just 45 years after it was founded and eight years before his first Gallery of Art opened to visitors just a stones throw from the White House. It is largely due to Corcoran’s efforts that the college grew to become a national university located not far from his bank building, his mansion on Lafayette Square, and both galleries of art that have borne his name.
While Corcoran is most famous for being a philanthropist and founder of Washington’s first art museum and the third in the nation, he was in fact a banking and real estate mogul and some of the profits from buying, selling and lending simultaneously financed the growth of Columbian College and the creation of his Gallery of Art. He clearly wanted both institutions to thrive and grow and fulfill his goals of educating the youth of the nation as well as his community in the arts and the sciences.
If he favored one over the other, it’s hard to determine, for the college clearly received a significant portion of his fortune and personal attention even if it didn’t get his name. Corcoran’s donations and the endowment he set up for the college, along with loans from the bank he cofounded with his business partner George Washington Riggs, financed the college’s growth after the Civil War and well after Corcoran’s death (and possibly even to this day.) During that period Columbian College renovated several buildings Corcoran purchased and donated to the university for renovation and conversion into teaching facilities and a hospital.
Well over a century after his death, GW and its officials and even some alumni have been preserving Corcoran’s legacy even though they may not even be aware of the deep connection between GW and the Corcoran Gallery of Art and how they are both physical manifestations of one man’s dreams and planning. Ironically, it was a GW alumna with a bachelor’s degree in art and French literature—First Lady Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy—who saved Corcoran’s “American Louvre” from demolition in 1963. The building, which is now known as the Renwick, is currently closed to undergo a major renovation while at the same time GW is seeking permission to repair and upgrade the Corcoran in a similar way. If everything goes as planned, both of Corcoran’s galleries should reopen to art lovers sometime in 2016, an amazing coincidence given that the two landmark buildings were built well over a century ago.
There is no doubt that if the current Corcoran Gallery of Art building had to be taken over by any institution and upgraded, Corcoran surely would have wanted it to be GW and not the National Gallery of Art, the University of Maryland or any other entity. Because GW and the Corcoran are both his progeny and the bigger, stronger one is fortunately now in a position to assume the care of the younger, weaker one and hopefully nurse it back to health. One positive sign the merger is going well is the NEXT 2015 Exhibition, which opened a couple nights ago with a reception. Over 700 people attended and hundreds more will be visiting over the course of the next month. And once the National Gallery of Art opens the Legacy Gallery, with some of the signature works that were from the Corcoran collection, as well as a series of contemporary exhibits, thousands of prospective students and parents as well as VIPs and tourists will be touring the building. Look for Gilbert Stuart's iconic portrait of George Washington to have a prominent place in the Legacy Gallery.
In 1904 Columbian University was renamed the George Washington University after the president who first dreamed of establishing a national university in the nation’s capital. Ironically the investments that George Washington set aside to help finance the university became worthless before the college could even get started. Instead it was Corcoran’s investments that financed the growth of the college and made George Washington’s vision real. So the university’s trustees could have justifiably chosen Corcoran University for the new name back in 1904. Heck, Welsh merchant Elihu Yale had a college named for him for far less: the proceeds from the sale of nine bales of goods, 417 books and a portrait of King George I.
Looking back, if Columbian University trustees had renamed the university after its primary benefactor back then and not the nation’s first president, and if more people were currently aware that the two institutions were essentially built up by the same man, it stands to reason there would be significantly less opposition to Corcoran University taking over the Corcoran Gallery of Art and updating it in Corcoran’s spirit.
Here are just a few examples of how Corcoran’s life and legacy and GW’s history are intertwined and inseparable.
Columbian College/Columbian University/George Washington University
Over a period of two decades, William Wilson Corcoran donated his services, funds and real estate to help Columbian College. His interest was in aiding in “the establishment at the seat of government of the United States, an institution designed for the acquisition of knowledge in all the branches of learning, where the youth of the country may enjoy the most enlarged advantages of a liberal education through coming time.. . .”
The College awarded Corcoran an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws in 1869 after he became a member of the College’s board and just three years after he gave the college a building on H Street to house its medical school. In 1872 he became president of the board, a post he held until his death in 1888. In 1872 he also established the Corcoran Endowment Fund to help the college grow and he contributed securities and real estate to the fund over a period of two decades. The purpose of the fund was to “aid in the permanent endowment of the college and its elevation to the dignity and usefulness of a University.” Due to his efforts, the Columbian College became the Columbian University by an Act of Congress in 1873, and in 1904 the university was renamed The George Washington University. It was Corcoran’s wish “that the principal of the donation, when realized should be funded and kept forever intact, the interest alone being applied to the support of the College.” In 1959, the fund totaled $220,000 and it may still exist to this day. Hopefully GW will use funds from Corcoran’s own endowment to fund the renovation of his gallery and his art school?
While Corcoran loved and supported the arts, he also believed in investing in science and engineering to pursue research and encourage technological innovation. In 1884, four years before his death, Corcoran helped the university to establish the Corcoran Scientific School to teach engineering and the sciences. The school offered evening classes in science and technology leading to the degrees of “Bachelor of Science, Civil Engineer, Mechanical Engineer and Mining Engineer.”
Forty years later, GW built its first building on its new Foggy Bottom campus to house the university’s growing engineering and science program. The Colonial Revival building, which is humble and plain compared to the Renwick and the Corcoran Gallery, was named in Corcoran’s honor. Corcoran Hall fittingly abuts and is connected to the university’s brand new George Washington University Museum and Textile Museum. On opening weekend, over 2,000 people visited the museum and in a week or so the museum will host the 60th annual Corcoran Ball to raise money for a Corcoran scholarship fund. Less than a month before the GW Museum officially opened on March 21st, GW opened its new 500,000-square-foot Science and Engineering Hall less than two blocks away to house over 140 faculty members and thousands of students in a state-of-the-art research facility.
Corcoran would undoubtedly be pleased the university is still growing and investing in both the arts and the sciences. And a brief tour of both the GW Museum and the Science and Engineering Hall should give anyone confidence GW will use the same care in renovating the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the School of Art.
In 1859, Corcoran, who lived in a mansion on Lafayette Square overflowing with art, hired architect James Renwick to design the nation’s first building devoted exclusively to showing American art. The Second Empire Style building was completed after the Civil War and the first Corcoran Gallery of Art officially opened in 1874 five years after he joined Columbian College’s board. (Although he founded the Corcoran Gallery of Art and provided the funds to start the Corcoran School of Art, Corcoran never served on the Gallery’s board.)
Ironically, almost a century later the building, which had been subsequently renamed the Renwick Gallery, was saved from destruction by a GW alumna—First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy—and it was turned over to the Smithsonian. The Renwick Gallery is currently being renovated and it sounds like the improvements will be remarkably similar to what GW is proposing for the current Corcoran Gallery. And it doesn’t seem like anyone opposed the Renwick renovation plans before construction began.
Corcoran Gallery of Art
When it became clear the Corcoran Gallery’s art collection and its school of art was outgrowing the building, architect Ernest Flagg was hired to design a new building that would become the new Corcoran Gallery of Art (and the one GW is now planning to renovate.) Unfortunately Corcoran died in 1888, two years before the School of Art was founded with his funding and nine years before the new Gallery opened in 1897. When he died the New York Times headline called him “Washington’s Most Prominent Citizen.”
Corcoran also believed in historic preservation. He contributed to the saving of Mount Vernon after George Washington’s heirs couldn’t afford to preserve it and the federal government refused to buy it and protect it. Over a century later, GW freshmen now get to spend their first night at school at Mount Vernon.
I was in D.C. on business two weeks ago and attended the GW Museum opening, toured all of the new buildings including Science and Engineering Hall, and had lunch at Beefsteak, a beer at Quigley's and dinner at Founding Farmers. It became clear over the course of three days that GW has never looked nicer. And with the right leadership in place, all the key facilities built and open, and the athletic programs on the rise, the present looks great and the future looks better than ever. George Washington and William Wilson Corcoran would be proud.