- The National Gallery of Art was a gift from Andrew Mellon in the 1930s.
- The museum stands on the former site of a train station, most famous for being where 20th president James Garfield was shot in 1881 by Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled office seeker.
The National Gallery of Art located on the Mall between 4th and 9th Streets, NW, plus its original art collection were donated to the people of the United States by Andrew Mellon in 1937. Mellon was a self-made financier, Secretary of the Treasury for 11 years as well as a philanthropist. The original West Wing of the National Gallery of Art was designed by John Russell Pope. It is built from solid blocks of pink Tennessee marble in Neoclassical style with Beaux Arts influences.
The history of the National Gallery follows the rise of Andrew Mellon. Having dropped out of college before graduation in 1873 he began a lumber company and was eventually employed at his father’s small Pittsburgh bank. He was successful in banking and in 10 years his father signed the bank over to him. Using this bank as his base Mellon funded many businesses in the Pittsburg area and went on to create Alcoa and Gulf Oil, along with many other US businesses. By the 1920’s Mellon had become one of the richest men in the US.
In 1921 President Harding offered Mellon a cabinet position, Secretary of the Treasury. Mellon accepted the cabinet appointment, deciding to cap his career in business with a career in Government service. He then divested himself of his businesses. While serving as Secretary of the Treasury Mellon restructured the tax code, lowered taxes, and made impressive strides to lower the national debt after WWI. According to public opinion, he was credited with creating the Roaring 20’s. After the financial crash in 1929, Mellon was then blamed for causing the Depression. He resigned as Secretary of the Treasury in 1932.
During the 1920’s Mellon dreamed of building an expansive national museum in Washington DC to rival the national museums in European capitals. In 1936 Mellon made an offer to President Roosevelt and Congress that he would fund building of the National Gallery of Art and donate his entire 200+ piece art collection of Old Masters and sculpture to the museum.
In 1937 the government accepted his offer and found a large site on the Mall for the project. Mellon selected John Russell Pope as architect and the project began. Mellon refused to have the museum named for him because he felt the country deserved a national art gallery, however he formed a group of wealthy families The Founding Benefactors, to expand the museum’s endowment and to continue expanding its art collection. The National Gallery of Art now includes a second building, the NGA East Wing for contemporary art, designed by IM Pei, opened in 1976, near the original West Wing. A sculpture garden, ice skating rink, fountains and outdoor café soon followed.
Both Andrew Mellon and John Russell Pope died in 1937 while the museum was under construction. Today the National Gallery of Art which opened in 1941 is operated as a public/ private partnership, free to the public. It is not part of the Smithsonian Institution. It is funded jointly by the federal government and the endowment begun by Andrew Mellon.