Monday, March 12, 2012

WW Corcoran & the Louise Home at 15th & Mass Ave NW

The Louise Home on Massachusetts Ave between 15th and 16th Streets
William W. Corcoran was well known as a philanthropist in early Washington society, with his name attached to many buildings, banking institutions, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.  One of his lesser known institutions, however, shunned publicity following its opening in 1871 as the Louise Home.  Named after his deceased wife and daughter, the Louise Home was founded two years earlier, in 1869, for the comfortable maintenance and support of genteel yet impoverished ladies.     

William Wilson Corcoran was born in Georgetown on December 27, 1798, and during the long life time was known as a prominent banker, philanthropist, and art collector.  His father, Thomas Corcoran, came to Georgetown in 1788 and established a leather business there that quickly became prosperous, and he was twice elected Mayor.  

WW Corcoran
At the age of 37 in 1835, W.W. Corcoran, as he was known, eloped with Louise Morris, who was just then age 16.  She was the daughter of Commodore Charles Morris, and died just five years later, in 1840.  They had three children: Harriet Louise, Louise Morris, and Charles Morris. Sadly, only the middle child, Louise Morris (1838-1867), survived to adulthood.  W.W. Corcoran never remarried. 

Corcoran had entered business at the age of 17, working in dry goods store owned by two brothers, and opened his own store two years later.  In 1828, he took control of large amount of real estate from his father, and in 1837, established a brokerage firm on Pennsylvania Avenue at 15th Street.  He was very successful and soon entered into a partnership with George W. Riggs. The firm of Corcoran and Riggs prospered and in 1845, they purchased the United States Bank located on 15th Street at New York Avenue, renaming it Riggs Bank. 

In 1854, Corcoran was able to retire with an immense fortune and devote himself to art and philanthropy.  Earlier, in 1848, Corcoran had purchased 15 acres of land for Oak Hill Cemetery, which overlooks Rock Creek Park in Georgetown.  Corcoran also established a $10,000 fund administered by the Benevolent Society, to purchase firewood for the poor in Georgetown.

Interior of the Louise Home
By the early 1860s 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 and 17th Street.  During the Civil War, however, Corcoran, a Southern sympathizer, left Washington for Paris, where his new son-in-law, George Eustis Jr., was a representative of the Confederacy.  His wife, Louise Morris Corcoran, died there in 1867.  Returning to Washington after the war, W. W. Corcoran gave over his gallery building and much of his collection to the government in 1869.  The art gallery opened officially as the Corcoran Gallery in 1874.   

Shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War, in 1869 Corcoran began to actively pursue the establishment of a home "for the support and maintenance of a limited number of gentlewomen, who have been reduced by misfortune" mostly due to the War.  The site Corcoran choose for the building was the entire city block bounded on the north by Massachusetts Avenue, between 15th and 16th Streets, NW. 

Built at a cost of $200,000 in the popular French Mansard or Second Empire style, the building officially opened on April 17, 1871.  Occupants were carefully screened, and one lady named Mrs. Anna Atkinson, was reported to have been waiting with her trucks on the front porch before the building opened: she remained at the Louise Home until her death in 1907. 

During a death scare in 1879, Corcoran wrote the directors of the Louise Home about their future selections of occupants, most of whom were Confederate widows.  He wrote:

“The absolute necessity of selecting…ladies cultured and refined, whose dignified bearing will render them a desirable acquisition to the home…be chosen from that class of individuals who have known brighter days and fairer prospects, yet through reverses that human foresight could not have obviate have been compelled to contend with adverse circumstances.”

The Louise Home denounced any form of publicity as vulgar, and with a sizable endowment from Corcoran himself, did not need to appear in society for donations for continuing their mission.  Corcoran died on February 24, 1888, but the Home continued to accept ladies long after his death, with his faithful valet Michael Nolan serving as the resident doorman. 

Decades later, however, the vast open land surrounding the Home began to attract real estate developers, and bowing to pressure, the directors sold the property in 1947, moving to the Codman House at Decatur Place and 22 nd Street, NW.  The Home itself was razed two years later, in 1949.  

The Louise Home and its dwindling endowment was combined with the Lisner Home in 1976, and the John Dickson Home in 1985, and the Henry and Annie Hurt Home for the Blind in 1993. 
The Louise, Dickson, and Hurt Homes have preserved their individual and unique identities, however, and have retained their own endowments and Boards of Directors.  The facility is known today as the Lisner-Louise-Dickson-Hurt Home and is located at 5425 Western Avenue, NW.

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