William King came to America from Ireland in 1784 and completed an apprenticeship in Philadelphia before continuing westward to Virginia’s frontier and settling in Washington County. He made a fortune in the salt business and other enterprises and was worth one million dollars when he died at the age of 39 in 1808.
At the time of King’s death his will included a gift of $10,000 or “lands to that amount” to the Abingdon Male Academy, on whose board he served. The Academy needed new quarters, and his legacy was used for this purpose, locating the Academy on the tract that is today the Museum’s property.
In 1824 the Abingdon Male Academy built their school building at the top of this site, comprised of approximately 25 acres. By 1830, enrollment was over forty students. During the Civil War, troops were billeted in the school. The war took its toll on the building, and in 1872 a new brick school building was erected.
The Abingdon Academy closed its doors C. 1905. In 1912, its trustees leased the property to the Town of Abingdon and the Central School District of Washington County. The school board constructed a new brick school building in 1913 on the same site, using the same footprint as the Academy building. The new public school was named William King High School, so that people “may know that William King’s memory still lives in the hearts of the people of Abingdon.” This is the building that now serves as the museum facility.
The 1913 building was used as a public high school until 1959 and then as an elementary school until 1973. It remained empty until the William King Foundation was incorporated in 1979 to renovate the building into an arts center. Piecemeal renovations proceeded until 1989, when the legacy trustees of the Abingdon Male Academy gifted the property and all its buildings, subject to existing leases, to William King Regional Arts Center. The Arts Center closed its doors for a major renovation project in 1989 and reopened as a museum in 1992. The Museum went through a second phase of renovations, mainly to the third floor in 1996. The Museum was accredited in 2004 and changed its name to William King Museum in 2009 and to William King Museum of Art in 2014.