Collection The Presidents
Biographies & Portraits
William Wilson Corcoran—banker, philanthropist, and patron of the arts—resided in picturesque splendor on the northwest corner of Lafayette Park at the intersection of H Street and Connecticut Avenue, NW, from 1848 to 1888. The son of an Irish immigrant, Corcoran made his fortune in banking. As a partner in Washington’s Corcoran & Riggs Bank during the Mexican War, he was responsible for the sale of government war bonds to England, establishing the American government’s credit abroad. His gregarious nature, and not least his vast wealth, enabled him to make and maintain friendships. The Corcoran house was the “center of the most fashionable and distinguished society of the capital and his entertainments were of the most elegant and costly character,” wrote Benjamin Ogle Tayloe, a neighbor on Lafayette Park.1 The house was an extraordinary setting for the most splendid entertainments of nineteenth-century Washington. For Corcoran’s larger-than-life personality, it was a magnificent stage.
Originally built in 1828 for Thomas Swann, a successful Maryland attorney, the house was purchased by Corcoran in 1848 from New England’s “champion expounder” Daniel Webster.2 Corcoran commissioned architect James Renwick Jr. to transform Webster’s Federal-style townhouse into an Italianate palazzo until “like the frigate Constitution, there is very little of it left as it was then.”3 Renwick practiced architecture in an era that understood the symbolic resonance of architectural allusions. For example, his Smithsonian Institution (1847–1855, now known as “the Castle”) recalled the monastic tradition of learning and English collegiate architecture. When Renwick designed the first Corcoran Gallery of Art (now the Renwick Gallery), beginning in 1859, he borrowed design motifs from the Louvre. For Corcoran’s home, Renwick recalled the grandeur of the Florentine Medici—the great bankers and art collectors of the Renaissance. The result was one of the first examples of the Italianate style in Washington, D.C.
To accommodate the large entertainments Corcoran held at home and also his extensive art collection, Renwick added wings to the east and west of the original central block of the house, creating an imposing facade that stretched half a block down H Street, facing Lafayette Park. A playful use of bay windows and stone balconies softened an otherwise austere exterior. A fourth floor, rather a penthouse, was set back to provide rooftop entertainment space behind a classical balustrade. It proved the ideal location for observing official processions such as inaugural parades. Renwick, who had a flair for the dramatic, relocated the primary entrance of Corcoran house from the center of the house to the far end of the east wing, where guests’ carriages entered through a grand arched gateway into a garden.
The walled garden behind the Corcoran house was created by John Saul, a gardener who had come to America from Britain to work for America’s first landscape architect, Andrew Jackson Downing, and his partner, Calvert Vaux. Fruit trees that “blossom so fragrantly every spring as to scent the entire neighborhood” cast sun-dappled shade upon gravel paths bordered by English boxwood, swaths of lawn, and garden ornaments planted with colorful flowers. 4A fountain splashed in the center of the garden. A conservatory provided hothouse flowers for the bouquets, liberally bestowed on delighted women guests. “The flowers were superb,” Corcoran recalled and described how he “made a most liberal distribution of them among the ladies.” 5
The interior was climaxed by a suite of lavishly decorated drawing rooms. Numerous laudatory descriptions survive of the public rooms before photography had advanced to a level allowing high-quality interior photographs. “His taste,” observed Tayloe, was “in all respects excellent.” 6 A series of late nineteenth-century photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston, housed at the Library of Congress, reveal groupings of potted palms and artistically arranged furniture. By this time, however, Corcoran’s superb collection of paintings and sculpture had been removed and displayed for the public in the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The magnificence of the rooms when “adorned with the finest creations of the painter and the sculpture” can only be imagined. 7
Corcoran’s “quaint” bay-windowed library overlooked Lafayette Park. The room was praised for its collection of “rare works and choice engravings.” 8 It was here that Corcoran orchestrated his philanthropy and art collecting. Much of Corcoran’s day was dedicated to his voluminous correspondences. Corcoran was inundated with invitations, thank-you letters, pleas for financial assistance, and endless letters of introduction for a constant stream of visitors to Washington. He was only too “gratified to have an opportunity to show civility” to young Baron Alphonse de Rothschild, or to William Astor Jr., the 17-year-old son of William Backhouse Astor, who visited Washington in 1857 “preparatory to a tour he will shortly make in Europe.” Corcoran played host the following year to Lord Frederick Cavendish, second son of the Duke of Devonshire, on his visit to Washington, “not only on account of his own personal worth, but in consideration of the courteous attention which invariably have attended the visiting Americans to Chatsworth.” 9
The princely dining room was hung with The Seasons, four paintings attributed to the eighteenth-century French painter François Boucher, and served as the setting for Corcoran’s popular dinner parties. 10 Tayloe, a frequent guest, wrote that Corcoran’s “splendid dinners are well remembered.”11 A registry of antebellum Washington society is preserved in two Riggs & Company notebooks in the William Wilson Corcoran Papers at the Library of Congress, where Corcoran’s commanding script recorded his dinner company. Reviewing Corcoran’s guest list reveals Washington’s social whirl as dominated by East Coast aristocracy, representatives of the wealthy cotton states, and titled members of the diplomatic community. From New York and Massachusetts, there are Van Rensselaer, Roosevelt, Thayer, Winthrop, and Peabody; Virginia and Maryland are represented by Mason, Preston, Randolph, Tayloe, and Carroll. 12
During the brilliant social season of 1857–58, Corcoran sent out cards for an impressive succession of dinners. During the last two weeks of January alone, President James Buchanan and his niece, Harriet Lane, came to dine with fellow guests Senator and Mrs. Jesse Bright of Indiana and Mr. and Mrs. Howell Cobb of Georgia, Buchanan’s secretary of the treasury. A few nights later, Corcoran held a stag dinner that included Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and Vice President John Cabell Breckinridge of Kentucky, followed five days later with a dinner and reception in honor of British special minister to Central America, William Gore Ouseley and Lady Ouseley.
It was Corcoran’s weekly stag parties, the “chief rendezvous for distinguished men,” that achieved his true fame for hospitality. These were the most sought after invitations to Corcoran’s house, with “the most grand with a file of Senators on each side of the table, or intermixed with the foreign or cabinet ministers,” Tayloe recalled. 13 A legendary wine cellar included bottles of Madeira that Captain Stephen Decatur captured from a British frigate in the War of 1812.14
W. W. Corcoran was an early patron of American art at a time when most collectors focused on European paintings, and his art collection was proudly displayed in his west wing picture gallery. A catalog of the collection in his house privately printed in 1857 provides a glimpse into the tastes of antebellum collectors. Important contemporary American artists were represented, such as Daniel Huntington’s Mercy’s Dream, a scene from Pilgrim’s Progress; Thomas Cole’s pendant paintings, The Departure and The Return (“a poetical representation of the feudal times”); Seth Eastman’s striking Ball Playing Among the Sioux Indians; and William Ranney’s Duck Shooting, described in the catalog as being the most authentically American work in the collection. Alongside the ubiquitous assortment of puppies, parrots, and sheep paintings were landscapes, such as View on the Hudson in Autumn by Thomas Doughty, and genre paintings, such as Milton Playing the Organ At Cromwell’s House by Emanuel Leutze. The widower Corcoran’s well-known admiration for handsome women is evident in his art collection. Paintings titled The Huguenot’s Daughter by W. D. Washington, The Coquette (artist unknown), and The Blond, the Brunette and the Medium by T. P. Rosseter provide a tentative narrative to images of lovely ladies at leisure.15 No depictions of Corcoran’s picture gallery before the Civil War are known. Presumably the artworks were displayed in the fashionable salon style of paintings hung one above the other, as depicted in the Harper’s Weekly’s illustration of Mr. Aspinwall’s Gallery.16
The pièce de résistance of Corcoran’s fine collection was Hiram Powers’s controversial sculpture of a nude woman of “uncompromising virtue” entitled The Greek Slave. The statue brought worldwide recognition to Hiram Powers, an American sculptor residing in Florence. Whether exhibited at various world exposition or on its 1847–48 tour of the United States, it always caused a sensation. The Greek Slave depicts a Greek woman being sold in an Ottoman Empire slave market during the Greek War of Independence (1821–32). Stripped of her garments and sold as a sexual object, she grasps in her right hand a locket and a cross that indicates “she is a Christian, and beloved . . . a being superior to suffering, and raised above degradation, by inward purity and force of character.” 17 Corcoran owned one of the six marble versions of The Greek Slave. Visitors to Corcoran’s long picture gallery saw the chaste statue exhibited on a turntable in a semicircular alcove, designed especially by Renwick, to display the work. A skylight admitted moonlight to the alcove.
George Washington may not have slept at the Corcoran house, but his presence was represented in artifacts, art, and memory. Corcoran owned “two chairs that formally belonged to and were used by General Washington . . . shorn of their formal style but still valuable for their associations.” 18 Paintings of historic houses associated with the first president, such as Washington’s Headquarters on the Hudson River by J. F. Cropsey and Mount Vernon by William McLeod, were patriotically displayed. 19 The banker proudly told the tale of his father, the mayor of Georgetown, welcoming President George Washington on his visit to the city in 1791, when he came to confer with Pierre Charles L’Enfant about the city plan.
Residing across the square from the White House, Corcoran enjoyed a neighborly relationship with a succession of presidents from John Tyler to Grover Cleveland, with the conspicuous exception of Abraham Lincoln. Corcoran’s charm, eager ear, and generous nature endeared him to many first ladies, notably Sarah Polk and Lucy Hayes. W. W. Corcoran played the gallant to handsome Mrs. Polk, offering advice in decorating the White House and making sure to run small helpful errands for her on his frequent trips to New York City. 20
A close friendship developed between Corcoran and two presidents—Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan. After Fillmore left office, a correspondence was maintained between the former banker and the former president. Congratulating President Fillmore on his second marriage, Corcoran wrote “to the happy pair who are entering upon a matrimonial voyage and to wish them prosperous gales and a serene sky.” 21 Fillmore once wrote to Corcoran, “I know of none whose society I should prefer to your own. I have always recollected with much pleasure our journey together in Virginia.” 22 Fillmore and Corcoran even arranged to travel to Europe together, frequently coordinating their Continental wanderings so as to have a pleasant rendezvous in Berlin or Amsterdam. It was with President Buchanan, however, that intimate friendship developed, only to be tested toward the end of the administration when the president refused to interfere in a private strife that became a public scandal.
Presumably W. W. Corcoran and James Buchanan first met when Buchanan was a young congressman from Pennsylvania. When Corcoran and his daughter, Louise, toured Europe in 1855, James Buchanan was the American minister to the Court of St. James and offered to secure invitations to the leading houses of London. 23 It was reported by the press that Buchanan was Corcoran’s guest during the days leading up to his inauguration. The entire household was awakened at one minute past midnight on the morning of his inauguration by Gilmore’s Band enthusiastically playing “Hail to the Chief” outside the Corcoran house. 24 Around nine in the evening, if the president was able, he often walked across the square to Corcoran’s house to enjoy a long conversation by the fire in the library. A card sent from the Executive Mansion in the late afternoon announced his planned visit. “My dear Sir, I shall do myself the pleasure of calling to see you at 9 this evening. I have had a very encouraging day. Ever your Friend, James Buchanan.” Occasionally, of course, such plans were interrupted by the demands of the presidential office. “I regret that it will be impossible for me to accompany you this afternoon. I am sincerely sorry for this, because it would afford me great pleasure.” 25
A close friend of the president and able to count many of the leaders in government as companionable dinner company, Corcoran was riding high during the last few years of the Buchanan administration. He presided over one of the last great social events of antebellum Washington, D.C.—the marriage of his only child, Louise Corcoran, to George Eustis Jr. on April 5, 1859.
Eustis, a congressman from Louisiana, a graduate of Harvard Law School, and a scion of a family with a long history of political distinction, was an ideal match for Corcoran’s beloved child. He was a “slender, gallant looking young fellow” possessing the “hauteur” of his ancestors with the “French suavity of manner” of his Louisiana home. 26 Congressman Eustis was far more suitable than the Portuguese adventurer Signor Muruagea, “a secretary of a foreign legation, a man apparently unexceptionable in point of means, calling, character, and for that matter rank,” whose pursuit of Louise Corcoran caused “general commotion in the hooped world” as well as embarrassing press attention. The romance was firmly ended when Corcoran discovered the “lover incognito” in his house and soundly kicked him out, forbidding the secretary to see his daughter. In a scene fit for a nineteenth-century novel, the lover challenged Corcoran to a duel “and, being refused the pleasure of a fight, slaps him with his glove.” 27 Incensed, Corcoran attempted to persuade President Buchanan to use his influence to have the foreign secretary dismissed and sent back to Portugal. The president wisely refused to get involved in the entanglement, but there were no more evenings of convivial conversation before Corcoran’s fire.
Corcoran’s indignation is ironic since his own courtship of 16-year-old Louise Morris, when he himself was 37, was met with fierce opposition from Louise’s father, Commodore Charles Morris, who viewed Corcoran as a fortune hunter. In 1835, the couple eloped. Sadly, Louise Morris Corcoran died of tuberculosis five years later. Corcoran never remarried, raising his only child, named after her mother, alone. His daughter, Louise Corcoran, described as “rather petite, with a full face, expressive eyes, and graceful carriage,” 28 was raised in isolated splendor. Louise no doubt delighted in the romance of a handsome foreigner’s attention. However, with the press speculating a dowry of $5 million, her more worldly-wise father was wary of the true intentions of his daughter’s suitors.
Surviving in the William Wilson Corcoran Papers at the Library of Congress is a letter from the office of Harper’s Weekly requesting permission to send a reporter to cover the Corcoran wedding. Harper’s writes that naturally a father’s own “personal feelings would doubtless prompt you to shrink from giving publicity to a family matter” but that he must counter these fine sentiments with the fact that “the rank and position of your family are such that the public journals will be compelled to give some account of the wedding” and would it not be better if he cooperated with an invited reporter to ensure no mistakes or unflattering reports are published? 29 Apparently Corcoran was persuaded, as a correspondent from the magazine was included in the nearly fifteen hundred invitations sent out. A long and flattering article on the wedding appears in the April 16, 1859, issue of Harper’s Weekly. Guests arriving for the evening nuptials were greeted by Mr. Corcoran. The house was lavishly decorated with “rare exotics grouped in high pyramids . . . and myriads of wax lights added to the brilliancy.” At eight o’clock, Corcoran reappeared with the Reverend Smith Pyne, of nearby Saint John’s Church, to lead guests into the picture gallery where all were impressed by the “beautiful tableau” of The Greek Slave surrounded by a cluster of “scarlet azaleas” and “rare exotics, pure and white as the eloquent marble itself.” When Louise Corcoran made her entrance into the picture gallery, a small gasp arose from the guests in appreciation of her “glistening diamonds.” The diamonds were a gift from her father and rumored to have cost an astounding $8,000. One guest was overheard criticizing the tastelessness of such lavish expenditure, while the critic’s husband was observed grabbing and pocketing French bonbons. 30
Despite the splendor of the wedding, one individual’s absence was conspicuous and the topic of many whispered conversations. President Buchanan had not been invited, it was rumored, and the “l’intente cordiale between the two sides of the square” had been “ruptured” by the President’s refusal to become entangled with the scandal involving Louise Corcoran and the foreign secretary. Events moved quickly during the next two years as the nation hastened toward the Civil War—no time to repair the friendship between banker and president.
Corcoran, a southern sympathizer, fled to Europe to wait out the war. Fearing confiscation of his property by the United States, he leased his house to the French Legation. The French minister, the marquis de Montholon, moved into the Corcoran house and continued Corcoran’s tradition of “gorgeous hospitality.” A large reception in honor of the victorious General Ulysses S. Grant was attended by Lincoln’s republican court and the officers of a French warship resplendent in their military uniforms. 31
Returning after the Civil War, W. W. Corcoran discovered a city, and a society, transformed by the great conflict. With his vast wealth and incurably gregarious nature intact, however, he was able to reestablish his social prominence in the capital. Corcoran devoted the next twenty-three years of his life to promoting the arts, joining the ranks of the great Gilded Age philanthropists.
Corcoran’s contributions to the city of Washington are astounding. He founded the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Louise Home—a residence for genteel but impoverished women—and the medical college of George Washington University. He generously donated funds enabling the creation of Oak Hill Cemetery, Washington City Orphan Asylum, and the Episcopal Church of the Ascension. His generosity also enabled the Washington National Monument Society to complete the Washington Monument and furthered the efforts of the Little Sisters of the Poor. In addition to his well-publicized donations, Corcoran supported smaller causes, such as paying the tuition for a bright young scholar and providing a surprise cake and ice cream party at a nearby Catholic orphanage.
William Wilson Corcoran’s daughter, Louise Corcoran Eustis, died in her villa at Cannes in 1867, her husband, George Eustis, soon after. The philanthropist took on the primary role of raising his Eustis grandson. In his library overlooking Lafayette Park, Corcoran penned a short memoir for his two grandchildren entitled A Grandfather’s Legacy . In the introduction, he gave a short explanation of the motives for his philanthropy:
"As a private individual, inspired by an appreciation of my relations to my fellow-man, I have, from early youth to old age, endeavored to be just to all, and generous to the deserving. Blessed by kind Providence with larger possessions than commonly fall to the lot of man, I have regarded them as a sacred trust for the benefit of knowledge, truth, and charity. The most valuable bequest I can make you is a good name, and I feel assured you will cherish it, for its price is above rubies." 32
W. W. Corcoran resided in his palazzo on Lafayette Park until his death at the age of 90 in 1888. The Corcoran house remained in the Corcoran family until 1922, when it was sold and demolished to make way for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building. When a young David E. Finley, future first director of the National Gallery of Art, was courting Corcoran’s great-granddaughter Margaret Eustis, he wrote in his diary, “They sold their beautiful old W.W. Corcoran House on H Street which is now being demolished to make way for a Grecian temple, which will house the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The onward rush of progress is sometimes rather devastating.” 33
Biographies & Portraits
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to office at the height of the Great Depression. He ushered in an environment...
Every year since 1981, the White House Historical Association has had the privilege of designing the Official White House Christmas Ornament....
No sport is more closely tied to the American presidency than baseball. One of Washington’s first baseball fields was lo...
Biographies & Portraits
Presidents have found different ways to escape the pressures and politics of the position. For early leaders, it was a...
Since 1878, American presidents and their families have celebrated Easter Monday by hosting an "egg roll" party. Held on the South...
Since the White House was first occupied by President John Adams in 1800, influential people and organizations—or those who hoped to...
For more than two centuries, the White House has been the home of American presidents. A powerful symbol of the...
Animals, whether pampered household pets, working livestock, birds, squirrels, or strays, have long been a major part of White House...
In April 1789, George Washington took the oath of office in New York City. Constitutional guidelines for inaugurations are sparse, offering...
From its construction in 1792, until the 1902 renovation that shaped the modern identity and functions of the interior of the White...