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Three Stories from the Corcoran Gallery’s History

Three great stories from the Corcoran Gallery's past, including an unnoticed President Coolidge and stolen art.
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Tragedy! I was tipped off by DCist that the Corcoran Gallery might be leaving the District for Alexandria?! Wow, that would be bad. Say it ain’t so. And who is in the market to buy a big 115-year-old art gallery? What’s the market price anyway … $50 million? Hey, the White House is apparently estimated at $110 million.

Well, the good news is that this was inspiration for another “Three Things…” post. Let’s see if GoDC can dig up some bizarre and odd tales about the Corcoran Gallery.

1. The new Corcoran Gallery opens on 17th St.

The New Corcoran Gallery (Washington Times)
The New Corcoran Gallery (Washington Times)

Out with the old and in with the new. Early 1897 was a time for change in Washington, D.C. A new president was two weeks away from being inaugurated. William McKinley had defeated William Jennings Bryan in the fall of 1896 and inaugurations were held in March (watch film of his second inauguration in 1901).

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The new Corcoran Gallery was set to open just before the celebrations for the incoming president. The Washington times had a column in their newspaper on February 23rd, detailing the grand opening ball held the night before.

Nearly five thousand people visited the new and beautiful Corcoran Art Gallery last evening by the courtesy of the trustees, who had issued cards to the friends of the institution for a private view of the treasures in this exquisite temple of art.

It was understood that Mrs. Cleveland would be present, as she had accepted her invitation, and this possibly secured the continued attendance of the crowd until after 11 o’clock, when the doors were to be closed. Between 9 and 10, however, the notables arrived in great numbers, among them being Sir Julian Pauncefote, his three daughters, Lord Aberdeen and the Countess of Aberdeen, and their daughter, Mr. and Madame Patenotre, the Chinese Minister and Madame Yang Yu, the Japanese Minister, and members of the legation, Minister De Lome, Madame De Lome, Senator Hoar and party of ladies, Senator Pasco and party, Vice President Stevenson and party, M. Andrade and party, Senator Blackburn and party, President H. L. Whitman, of Columbian University, and party, Rev. Howard Wilbur Ennis and party, Rev. Mackay-Smith, D. D., and Mrs. Smith, Senator Lodge, Mr. McMillin and Mrs. McMillin, and quite a number of other Representatives and Senators. All of the embassies were represented.

Possibly the proudest man in the building was Dr. Barbarin, the curator, and there was much to be proud of. The arrangements were as perfect as if they had been chiseled or painted by artists, and there was much appreciative comment on the disposition of the works of art in all the halls. Good critics said that the view is vastly superior to that in the Museum of Chicago, and in the exquisite symmetry of the hall and its contents even the much vaunted interior of the Congressional Library will have to look to its honors.

The public will not see this often, but after the formal opening tomorrow night the gallery will be as usual open all week and on the usual terms.

The committee under whose management the affair of last night was given was composed of Mr. S. H. Kauffman, Mr. Walter S. Cox, Mr. Fred B. McGuire, Mr. Charles C. Glover, Mr. Edward Clark, Mr. Calderon Carlisle, Mr. Matthew W. Galt, Mr. Wilham Corcoran Eustis and Mr. Thomas Hyde.

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2. Calvin Coolidge leaves White House to visit the Corcoran; Nobody notices

Poor silent Cal. He never gets any recognition or acknowledgement (read this post and you’ll know what I’m talking about).

A brief Washington Post article from January 5th, 1925 mentions the impromptu visit by the president and his wife.

Calvin Coolidge (Wikipedia)
Calvin Coolidge (Wikipedia)

Unheralded and almost unnoticed, President and Mrs. Coolidge, accompanied by three secret service men, slipped out of the White House yesterday afternoon and visited the Corcoran Gallery of Art to view the Willard Metcalf and daniel Chester French exhibits on display there.

Only the usual Sunday afternoon visitors were in the gallery when the President and Mrs. Coolidge arrived. They were greeted by C. C. Glover, president of the gallery’s board of trustees, and C. Powell Minnigerode, director of the gallery. Few noticed the presence of the presidential group as it went quietly from picture to picture or from marble to marble, and after three-quarters of an hour slipped out the students’ side entrance and returned to the White House.

The President and Mrs. Coolidge attracted little attention as they left the White House. They preferred to walk the short distance and left the White House car behind. There were few people on the streets and only here and there persons recognized the President as the group walked quietly along Seventeenth street.

The party returned almost unnoticed to the White House.

How many times does the article have to say the group went unnoticed? Poor Cal. Check out the photo of Calvin and Grace Coolidge leaving the gallery, secret service in tow.

Calvin and Mrs. Coolidge leaving the Corcoran. Nobody is noticing. - 1925 (Library of Congress)
Calvin and Mrs. Coolidge leaving the Corcoran. Nobody is noticing. – 1925 (Library of Congress)

3. Bronze statue stolen in 1885 mysteriously reappears in the gallery 15 years later

This is a bizarre story. I found this in the Washington Post, dated December 17th, 1900.

Two or three days ago a wooden box, carefully sealed and with express charges prepaid, was received at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which, on being opened, revealed a statue of a bear. It was thought for a time that it was a contribution, but when one of the old employes happened to see it he recognized the bronze as one which had mysteriously disappeared from the Old Gallery of Art at Seventeenth street and Pennsylvania avenue, about fifteen years ago.

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Frederick B. McGuire said the statue was taken in 1885, when William McCloud was curator, and although and investigation was made, no clew [sic] to its whereabouts could be obtained. It is a small statue weighing eight or ten pounds, and could have been carried off under a heavy overcoat or cloak. It is valued at $200, but as it was one of the gifts of the late W. W. Corcoran, it was highly prized.

The box was expressed from Boston, Mass., but otherwise there is no clew to the person who has held possession of the statue all these years, and probably no action will be taken to ascertain his or her identity.

The figure has been placed on a small table in the main hall of the gallery, where it attracted much attention yesterday.

Bizarre right? They never did find out who stole the bear.

Corcoran Gallery of Art between 1910-1925 (Library of Congress)
Corcoran Gallery of Art between 1910-1925 (Library of Congress)

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Ghosts of DC stories.