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Crocker Art Museum has enriched Sacramentans for more than a century

Early in his law career, Edwin B. Crocker established himself as a philanthropist.

An attorney who practiced in Indiana during the 1840s, Crocker often volunteered his services for abolition cases. He once concluded his defense of a group of runaway slaves from Kentucky with the instructions -- despite the protests of their owners -- for the workers to leave the courthouse as free men.

Crocker was forced to pay damages, but the event didn't diminish his spirit of goodwill.

"That tells us the kind of man he was," says Sheryl Gonzalez. "He had a cause."

The Crocker Art Museum, where Gonzalez works as public relations coordinator, stands at Third and O streets as a monument to another of the lawyer's causes: art.

Given to the city of Sacramento by Crocker's widow in 1885, it's the oldest public art museum west of the Mississippi River. But the accumulation of its holdings, now some 9,000 pieces, began much earlier.

After a stroke forced his retirement from law in 1869, Crocker, his wife Margaret and their daughters set off on a European expedition to collect paintings and master drawings.

During their absence of nearly two years, crews back in Sacramento worked to renovate the family mansion while architect Seth Babson designed an adjacent gallery building in which Crocker could display his treasures for family, friends and other capital residents.

"He was not only raising daughters, he was raising a community to appreciate things," Gonzalez explains.

His return to Sacramento was a show in itself. The European excursion ended with the delivery of carloads of art to Crocker's home. "When he arrived back, it was almost a spectacle," Gonzalez continues, "because he had bought hundreds of works of art."

Crocker didn't limit his interest to European works. A fan of Californian artists, he also purchased such paintings as William Hahn's "Market Scene, Sansome Street, San Francisco" (for $2,500 in 1872) and Thomas Hill's "The Great Canyon of the Sierra, Yosemite." The latter hangs in the same spot it has occupied in the gallery since 1873.

By blending European pieces and contemporary art, Crocker laid the foundation for a diverse collection that has grown to include 19th and 20th century Californian art, Asian art, ceramics, photography and Victorian decorative arts.

The mix allows patrons to trace the roots of today's art, Gonzalez says.

"We can show you the contemporary artists and what led to them," she explains.

Such refinement wasn't a part of Edwin and Margaret Crocker's early days in the capital.

Newlyweds when they took up residence in 1852, the couple discovered a city plagued by a typhoid epidemic, devastating fires and catastrophic floods.

Their arrival followed a less than ideal honeymoon. Shortly after their nuptials in Edwin Crocker's native New York, the pair set sail for California, a pre-Panama Canal journey highlighted by a trek over Central America's treacherous terrain.

Once in Sacramento, Crocker continued to practice law. His career included an appointment as an associate justice of the state Supreme Court and a turn as legal counsel to "Big Four" railroad barons Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Crocker's brother Charles.

Before his death in 1875, Crocker used his wealth to assemble what may have been the nation's largest private art collection of the time. He also trimmed his gallery with some bonus entertainment: a skating rink, bowling alley, indoor swimming pool and billiards room.

The 103,000 visitors who toured the Crocker Art Museum last year found no trace of those recreational activities. A trip through the modern-day gallery offers an all-art experience with highlights that include Charles Christian Nahl's "Sunday Morning in the Mines," Wayne Thiebaud's "Boston Cremes," Pieter Brueghel's "Peasant Wedding Dance" and drawings by Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt and Jacques-Louis David.

The restored Victorian offers a few extras for those who look and listen carefully. Gallery lore has it that on a still night a ghost can be heard trolling the halls.

Gonzalez doesn't buy that tale, but has a different yarn to spin.

Visitors who enter the museum's foyer may want to sneak a peek at the door next to the coat rack. A close look will reveal a bullet hole.

The blemish serves as a reminder of a shooter's ambush on guests during a 1925 visit.

Though the perpetrator's motives and victims' identities escape Gonzalez, the point is not lost: The Crocker is no ordinary museum.

Quick Facts

Getting there: The museum is located at 216 O St. From I-5, take the J Street exit. Make a right onto Third Street and continue four blocks to O Street.

Hours: 10 a.m-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and until 9 p.m. on Thursdays.

Admission: Adults 18-64, $5.50; Seniors 65+ $4.50; ages 7-17, $3; ages 6 and under, free. The museum is accessible by wheelchair.

Parking: A lot adjacent to the museum, accessible from Second Street, charges $2 (dollar bills and quarters accepted) for two-hour parking. Metered parking (quarters only) is also available.

More information: Call (916) 264-5423.