- 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
Terraced down the slope in front of the Acropolis, four on each side of the via sacra, were to stand eight galleries, each one representing in its architecture and contents one of the eight great civilizations of the past: Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Medieval, Saracenic, and East Indian. Each of the eight galleries was to be 500 feet square, covering six acres, and each would he built around a central court.
The galleries themselves would consist of three parallel corridors: the central one (lighted from above like the Louvre) for paintings, the two on the sides (lighted by windows like the Vatican) for statues and models. Each of the huge square galleries would have 1,700 feet of display range. All would be heated by steam. Including corner towers, Mr. Smith estimated that the galleries could be built from the best concrete at $31,363 per hundred feet or $1,000,000 per gallery. He felt that if the government would build one or two of them, the rich men of the nation would vie with each other to construct the others as lasting memorials to themselves.
Since walking through so many miles of gallery would be hard on the feet (especially on concrete floors), Mr. Smith charitably suggested the installation of slowly moving seats, some facing each way, on which the visitor would be effortlessly drawn along the main corridors. According to Mr. Smith, the galleries and courtyards could be completely filled with art for $2,000,000 beyond the cost of actual construction. Thus, in all, the eight galleries would cost $10,000,000, but the expense, trifling in comparison to the swiftly expanding national income, could be stretched out over a number of years.
Like many other Americans of his day. Smith was less concerned with pure art than with historical and patriotic education. Hence he left to wealthy private connoisseurs the collection of masterpieces. The National Galleries, he thought, should concern themselves only with art “consecrated to patriotism: its works would be diverted to heroic inspirations, rather than at present, almost entirely to fanciful, romantic, airy, and intangible creations.”
Thus Smith could not approve of most of the so-called great paintings of the past or see the point of grouping works of art as to artist or school. He was primarily interested in accuracy and truth of subject, and he felt that in the new realistic: historical style of the middle Nineteenth Century, with its “practical, unpoetical employment of art,” art had at last become useful.
Hence Smith proposed to line the central corridors of his galleries with miles of large (about seven by ten feet) paintings of the highest historical accuracy, painted in the most detailed and realistic style possible. These paintings were to be arranged so as to give a complete pictorial history of each of the civilizations with special attention to the depiction of events calculated to stimulate patriotism and good morals.
In each of the galleries there would be about 100 such paintings. The grand total of all the galleries would cost, according to Smith, only about $120,000. Certainly this was a better bargain than paying a quarter of a million dollars for one little masterpiece by Rembrandt!
In the side corridors were to be casts and models illustrating the statuary and architecture and domestic furnishings of past ages. But unlike the museums of Europe, the National Galleries were to have no broken or imperfect objects. Everything was to be restored to its original state. It was a silly prejudice, Smith thought, to insist on originals. For educative purposes, plaster casts and copies were exactly as good; in many respects they were better, since they could be more easily restored.
Smith thus planned to ransack the galleries of Europe for objects for reproduction. Whereas each of them had only a few great works, his galleries would have all. Never again would an American in search of art have to go to Rome or Berlin or London. And one advantage of casts was a practical one. Once the molds had been made, casts could he cheaply multiplied at will. When the National Galleries in Washington had once launched their program, fine art reproductions in the best plaster would be in easy financial reach of every school and college and small museum in the United States of America.
Smith, himself a maker of models, was not to be content, however, with small-scale models or partial reconstructions. The galleries themselves, though all of concrete, were to be modeled after ancient buildings. But Smith gave most emphasis to the full size models of complete buildings he proposed to construct; (also out of concrete) in the courtyard of each gallery.