Historic Structures

Crocker Art Gallery and Annex, Sacramento California

Date added: June 10, 2021 Categories: California Museum

The history of the group begins in the 1850's, when B.F. Hastings, pioneer banker and businessman of Sacramento built a home at the southwest corner of 3rd and O Streets. No clear historical or graphic information has yet been traced about this residence as it was originally built; the house is traditionally dated to 1852 or 1853 (certainly after the fire of November, 1852), when the B.F. Hastings commercial building at the southwest corner of 2nd and J Streets was also rebuilt more solidly. Inference suggests that it may have been a youthful work of Seth Babson of Maine (arrived in California 1850), born 1828; he was busy in the late 1850's with the Fogus (now Stanford) house. The Hastings house was apparently quite classical (if one judges from the unrevised service wing to the west of the house, appearing in old photographs of the Hastings- Crocker house) and would accord with the New Sngland training of Babson as well as the obvious classicist, late Georgian undercurrent in his more fashionable Fogus-Stanford house of 1857-58, where the 18th century qualities are expressed in Italianising terms. Judge Edwin Bryant Crocker, brother of Charles Crocker, bought the Hastings house about 1868; a June 1st burglary is reported in the Sacramento Union of June 3rd, 1869—"theft from the residence of E.B. Crocker at 3rd and O" with the loss of "considerable silverware and a watch"— inferring that the E.B. Crockers had been well settled by this date in their new residence. (E.B. Crocker was born in New York State in 1818 and arrived in Sacramento in 1852, where he practiced the profession of lawyer begun earlier in Indiana. He was associated with the early stages of the Central Pacific Railway. During Leland Stanford's term as Governor of California—January 10, 1862 to December 9, 1863, E.B. Crocker was appointed to the State Supreme Court, following the resignation of Chief Justice Fields. After the expiration of his term of office, Judge Crocker became chief counsel of the Central Pacific, and general agent. He suffered a paralytic stroke in June 1869, and retired from active service, becoming a member of the Board of Directors).

The former Hastings house was extensively revised (probably just before the Judge's stroke in June of 1869) by Seth Babson to suit the increased prosperity of the E.B. Crockers as the fortunes of the Central Pacific waxed ever greater. In 1870 the family went to Europe and Judge Crocker began the mass purchase of works of art which were finally assembled for exhibition in San Francisco in the fall of 1871. (The old master drawings were the most valuable single part of the Judge's European purchases; about one hundred are of major importance. The paintings were generally second rate works with major names, although the Judge and Mrs. Crocker later bought a few large California scenes of interest.) It was now thought advisable to build a special structure to properly show these "treasures" to Sacramento and/at the same time provide a new center for the ambitions of Mrs. Crocker and her daughters. Land was purchased before 1870 from several owners, to the west of the Hastings-Crocker house, creating a half block property on "O" between 2nd and 3rd, and reaching to an alley dividing the block at the south. Here, just about fifteen feet west of the service wing of the house (which had apparently never been revised by Babson in 1869), the Art Gallery was erected at a cost variously cited as $185,000 or $285,000 (the former seems to come from a more reliable source: the magazine "Themis", unless it is typographical error there). Construction was probably begun early in 1872 and the building was completed in 1873. William Davis, a Welshman, was supervisor of construction; John Coffey (related to the infamous Michael Coffey?) is said to have designed the double stair. The art collections (seven hundred paintings and one thousand drawings) had been brought to Sacramento in April of 1873; an old photograph at the Crocker Gallery shows the collection hung in what is now the picture gallery proper, but with a temporary wooden floor, and no opening into the ballroom below—suggesting that the buiding was not quite completed when the collections arrived in the late spring of 1873, but that provision was immediately made for a temporary exhibition.

The Art Gallery itself was a polite pretext for the social enthusiasms of the ladies in the family; although a superb library and storage room for the master drawings was built south of the ballroom (the viewing racks for the drawings are still preserved in the basement today), the main reason of the "Gallery" was the magnificent ballroom and the additional entertainment facilities on the floor below (now the basement), where a billiard room, two narrow bowling alleys and a large roller skating area (the storage cabinets for the skates are still to be seen on west walls of the temporary offices now partitioned into this space) were located—the alleys at the northeast side of the skating area. E. B. Crocker had married Mary Norton and had one daughter from this marriage; after Mary's death, he wed Margaret Rhodes, her friend, in 1852. There were five children, only two of whom survived beyond their twenties—Jennie Louise, later Mrs. Sloat Fassett, and Amy Isabella (Aimee), many times married. At this time in the 1870's there were four girls of eligible age in the family, two of whom were to die soon after. Judge Crocker himself did not live to enjoy these costly enrichments of his cultural life; his death on June 24th, 1875 came only two years after the Art Gallery was finished.

At some still unknown time, another quarter block (or more) of land was acquired by the family—beyond the alley of their original half block, so that Mrs. Crocker now owned at least three quarters and possibly all of the block between 2nd and 3rd and O and P. On the northwest corner of 3rd and P, directly south of the Hastings-Crocker house, Mrs. Crocker apparently had a large new residence built, after designs (still preserved) by Nathaniel Goodell, who had just finished the Gallatin house (1877-78). little or nothing is known about this house. It appears in Thompson and West's History of Sacramento County of 1880 as "Property of Mrs. E. B. Crocker", distinguishing it from the house bought by the Judge and called here "Residence of Mrs. E. B. Crocker". Was this Goodell designed house ever really built, or was the Thompson and West view based on the architect's renderings? (The Thompson and West print reverses Goodell's facade from left to right). If it were built, when was it dismantled? It is possible that personal associations with the older house at 3rd and O caused Mrs. Crocker to try living in a wholly new residence after the Judge's death. It seems inconceivable as a rental property, in terms of its very considerable size and ornamental splendor. It is also possible that the increased use of the Art Gallery entertainment center made the older house a kind of super-service wing In toto, or that it was given over to the living quarters of the four girls. Photographs of the older house after its representation in Thompson and West of 1880 reveal that changes to this residence did not cease with the plans for a new house; a special wooden bay with separate mansard roof projects from the northwest corner of the older house in photographs of 1885 and 1886. This may have given a better view from the old parlors to the river (the Art Gallery blocked the direct view to the west), or it may have coincided with some special event such as a wedding. (An old photograph shows the rooms decorated for such a wedding reception, in this general area of the house). During the l880's, however, Mrs. Crocker devoted herself increasingly, like many of her contemproaries including Jane Lathrop Stanford, to public and private charities. Money for a conservatory, for enlargement of a cemetery, for a pleasant large home for aged ladies—the Marguerite Home at 7th and Q, founded in 1884 and valued at $30,000 with a $62,000 endowment—indicate her growing preoccupation with good works. On March 21, 1885 Mrs. E. B. Crocker gave the Art Gallery to the City of Sacramento. The city expressed its municipal gratitude in the fantastic "Festival of Flowers" of May 6th, 1885, when floral and poetic tributes were tendered Margaret Crocker for her many good works. About 1887, Mrs. Crocker went east to Larchmont, New York, to be closer to her married daughters. (She died in 1901). The Judge and Mrs. E. B. Crocker's home, adjacent to the Art Gallery was given to the Fairhaven Home for Girls (unwed mothers); later it was vacated and badly vandalized. It was acquired by the city in 1911, partially with, money donated by Mrs. Sloat Fassett, the former Jennie Crocker (the total cost was $20,000); Mrs. Fassett later gave $25,000 as an endowment in 1928, along with her collection of oriental pottery. The city had spent about $25,000 in 1922 to renovate the old house and make it into an Annex of the Gallery. The Crocker Art Gallery is the 2nd oldest municipally or state-owned art gallery in the United States and the oldest gallery west of the Rockies. The curators and directors have included W. F. Jackson, Harry Noyes Pratt, Don Birrell, Ernest Van Harlingen, and currently Frank Kent.