The building on reverse is intended as a facing view of the McKinley Birthplace Memorial in Niles, Ohio; the most charitable view must characterize it as inaccurate and incompetently done. The portrait is evidently intended for William McKinley, but Barber appears to have been trying (as Taxay says) to make it as different as possible from that on the 1903 coins.
The Act of Congress of February 23, 1916, authorizing construction of the McKinley Birthplace Memorial, specified that not over 100,000 gold dollars of special commemorative designs could be made at the Philadelphia Mint only, and that afterwards the dies must be destroyed. (This would have been required under the provisions of the Mint Act of 1873, but for unknown reasons the framers of this 1916 bill thought reiteration necessary.) Why 1916? This is uncertain; possibly it took the local citizens in Niles fifteen years to get around to realizing that their assassinated President's birthplace could become a tourist attraction; possibly the target was 1917, 75th anniversary of McKinley's birth.
Charles E. Barber (designer of the obverse); George T. Morgan, Assistant Engraver of the U.S. Mint (designer of the reverse, but best known for the silver dollars of 1878-1921) and the heads of the National McKinley Birthplace Memorial Association, especially Col. Joseph Butler.
The original plan was for 100,000 commemorative silver dollar to be sold nationally by the Association, and a bill to that effect was before Congress in January 1916. At a hearing January 13, before the House Committee on Coinage, Weights and Measures, Col. Joseph Butler of the Association testified in objection to the proposal for silver dollars.Someone had evidently reminded him that McKinley's original election was as the gold standard candidate, and so Butler said "If you will recall the fact, McKinley was elected in 1896 mainly on the question of the gold standard. I think that was what elected him...I want to ask that these dollars be gold instead of silver." And the bill was accordingly amended, averting a gaffe as ridiculous as that which had portrayed William Windom on the 1891 $2 Silver Certificates.
(Windom was a ferocious advocate of the gold standard and an implacable opponent of the silver mine owners who were trying to elect William Jennings Bryan: he was portrayed on the $2 certificate because he had died in office as President Benjamin Harrison's Secretary of Treasury, and the bill was chosen because extensive counterfeiting of the 1886 Series required recall and reissue with changed design.) Like Windom, McKinley was portrayed on money only because he had been killed in office.
The Philadelphia Mint struck 20,000 gold dollars (with 26 extra reserved for assay) during August and October 1916. These two strikings cannot be distinguished. During February1917, 10,000 (plus 14 extra reserved for assay) followed, from the new at $3 apiece, either unaware or choosing to forget that the 1903 and 1904-5 gold dollars were impossible to market in any quantity at that figure. By 1917, even the Association realized the futility of this pricing policy, and dumped a total of 10,000 of the coins at a lower figure to the Texas dealer, B. Max Mehl, who offered them to collectors at $2.50 apiece.
It is uncertain whether Mehl's consignment consisted only of 1917s or of a mixture of the two dates. In either event, the Association returned 10,023 of the 1916 dollars to the mint for re-melting. Despite this record of actual mintage and distribution, the 1917 coin is a little harder to find than the 1916.
Proof-like specimens exist of both dates; in addition, there are at least a half of dozen proofs of the 1916 (including one in the Smithsonian Institution) and five of the 1917 (including one in a Philadelphia estate, and one in 1977 ANA:2062). The piece pictured here is one of the proofs; the definition of detail is far superior to that on business strikings previously shown, in which the rims are rounded, the hair definition is apt to be vague and many letters weak at tops or bottoms, whichever is nearer to the borders.
Dates were evidently added to the working dies, as they differ in spacing; note that the 7 is much farther from the 1 on the business strike (serif of 7 is vertically above center of R on the proof, vertically above curve of R on the business strike; other dies are possible).
Note the crudity of die work: the side frame of a window extends up to the roof, the Doric column capitals are mere blobs, and there are other evidences of carelessness, as shown on the enlarged detail.
Counterfeits exist of the 1917 and possibly also of the 1916. Because so many of the genuine dollars are weak strikings, a detailed comparison is necessary; we therefore illustrate first the genuine (from a die with 17 well apart), then the counterfeit (17 very closely spaced, and with far less hair visible than on the genuine).
U.S. Rare Coin Investments likes commemorative gold dollars is general but only in grades MS-63 and above.