- Historic Sites
Mr. Smith’s American Acropolis
Washington would be a capital of Egyptian pillars and Roman splendor if this hardware merchant’s grandiose plan had been adopted
June 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 4
In 1900 the United States had an inferiority complex. It had come of age in practical affairs. It had developed, as Mr. Franklin W. Smith of Boston pointed out in his Petition to Congress, the world’s best form of government. For a century its energies and skills and intelligence had been devoted to material development, to the creation of mines, factories, transcontinental railroads, and tunnels under the Hudson. But the nation that had built palaces of business and mansions for luxurious living had erected no temple of culture.
Despite its abundant wealth it could not claim equality with Europe in intellectual enterprise. On the threshold of a new century it was time for Americans to “pass onward toward nobler aims than mere financial and material aggregation.”
“The desire for knowledge by the people,” Mr. Smith said, “waits for the use of their abundant wealth to aid its acquisition.”
To remedy the nation’s cultural and intellectual inferiority Mr. Smith, a former hardware merchant, proposed one of the most grandiose schemes that has ever been seriously suggested. His intension was to transform Washington, D.C., into a capital of such beauty and cultural advantage that never again would an American be tempted to go abroad for artistic or intellectual reasons. To the contrary, all Europe would flock from its shattered monuments and scattered art treasures to a new Athens on the Potomac whose Periclean glory would symbolize a second and better great age of democracy.
“Washington must become a glory of the Republic,” he said. “beyond its possession of national force, in its resources for knowledge, its grandeur of art and architecture. As the Hellenes materialized their intellectual conceptions and aspirations on the Acropolis, Americans will centralize the illustration of their achievement and aims in the National Capital. They will rear its counterpart in a complete and harmonious temple of knowledge.”
Nor was this only the idle dream of a crackpot. Smith’s Petition to Congress relative to his proposal for National Galleries of History and Art was presented to the Senate on February 12, 1900, by Senator Hoar of Massachussetts. It was ordered printed in 5,000 copies as Senate Document No. 209, 56th Congress, First Session. It was supported, as letters to Smith indicate, by a number of prominent men from all over the country, one of whom, the outstanding merchant and philanthropist S. Walter Woodward of Washington, was so enthusiastic that he financed the building in 1898 of a pilot project, the Halls of the Ancients, at 1312–1318 New York Avenue, Washington. Hence in Smith’s elaborate proposals one finds a cogent and amusing exemplification of ihc cultural aspirations of the United States at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
The architecture of the period was nothing if not imitative and grandiose. Thus, characteristically, Smith’s designs called for a potpourri of ancient architecture on a grand scale.
On the hill at the head of Twenty-fourth Street, where once stood the Naval Observatory and now stands the United States Naval Hospital, Smith proposed to build an American Acropolis. At the summit, answering with its lofty pediment the grand dome of the Capitol, was to stand a great Memorial Temple of the Presidents of the United States, an exact replica of the Parthenon but one-half larger.
In this vast American Valhalla (inspired by King Ludwigs Teutonic Pantheon near Regensburg, Bavaria) were to be displayed statues and portraits of all the nation’s chief executives. On the walls, as inspiration to later ages, would he pictured the struggles through which these great men rose from obscurity to fame. On either side of this central temple were to stand smaller reproductions of the Theseion at Athens for the Army and Navy or for the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution.
Behind the three main temples, with an 800-foot colonnade (imitated from the Forum at Pompeii) stretching along the Potomac, would rise a Gallery of American History displaying paintings and models and relics of the glorious development of the country and of its peaceful crafts. From the magnificent portal of the Parthenonic memorial temple would extend toward the Capitol a via sacra of American democracy bordered with statues of the great and good. Thus this Acropolis, standing out against the horizon with twice the breadth of the Capitol, would symbolize the intellectual development of the nation as the Capitol dome symbolizes its constitutional wisdom. Here would be the shrine of every patriot.
The Acropolis itself, however, in all its concrete grandeur (everything was to be built not of marble but of cast cement), is perhaps not so revealing of the ideas and taste of 1900 as the Galleries of History and Art that were to accompany it.
Smith’s galleries were to constitute “a great systematic educational institution” which would teach Americans of their cultural heritage from Europe. They were particularly designed, Smith said, to satisfy the thirst for Old World culture of the legions of American school teachers too poor to travel abroad.