- 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
Hitherto, with the exception of model houses at a few world’s fairs and Smith’s own House of Pansa at Saratoga Springs, museums had presented only fragments. Here, based on the best historical and archaeological research, would be whole buildings illustrating graphically how people of past ages actually lived. In the Roman Court, for instance, would rise Trajan’s Column, the Porta Maggiore, the Palace of Scaurus, the Temple of Jupiter from Pompeii, a columbarium (burial place), and the rostra. Scattered among these would be specimens of the ruins of Pompeii, the Catacombs, tombs from the Appian Way, and (of all things!) the Cloaca Maxima. The Greek Court would enclose a complete agora (market plate) with its curia (senate house), basilica, altars, and statues: the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus; and the Erechtheum in whole or part.
Since the Acropolis and National Galleries were intended as more than mere patriotic monuments or even museums of history, they would have considerable staffs attached to them—thus providing genteel and respectable federal jobs to a number of persons (was Smith appealing to the patronage instinct of the members of Congress?). In basement workshops molders, photographers, and electrotypers would turn out casts and copies of the objects in the galleries. The commissioning of the immense amount of historical painting would in itself give employment, and instruction under competent European artists, to a large number of young American painters
Since the galleries’ collections of handicrafts would be useful to workers in the mechanical and decorative arts, an information bureau would have to be set up to answer inquiries by mail. Experts would also compile and publish instructive handbooks to the galleries which, like Smith’s own handbook to his Pompeia, could be used as textbooks in schools. But the most impressive employees of the galleries would, as Smith envisioned them, be the professors of art, history, and archaeologv, each one skilled in his own field.
Smith saw these professors as “rare” men, “grand of physique, able in knowledge, energetic and benevolent in impulse, of utterance effective with unction.” They would lecture in costume, “enlightening” the incidents illustrated in the miles of historical pictures and drawing “therefrom deductions of political and moral philosophy.” What could be more striking or more morally instructive than the Roman historian, “robed in the inimitably graceful folds of the toga,” quoting from the rostra the sonorous Latin of Cicero’s oration against Catiline, or the Greek historian, himself a native Greek in his country’s costume, declaiming Demosthenes? Thus would it be in each of the galleries.
Huge as they were to be, the American Acropolis and national galleries themselves were to be only the center of rebuilt and “aggrandized” Washington. Washington was to emerge the most beautiful city in the world. The cost, according to Smith, would be trifling, since the new streets and buildings would raise land values almost enough to offset their cost. And concrete was cheap.
Adjacent to the galleries, on the made land near the river, there would be a Park Istoria or historical park. Here the lofty castle of Rheinstein would look down on the Potomac as once on the Rhine. A Roman castra or fort would guard the reproduction of the Pompeian forum. The Washington Monument (an obelisk) would be embellished by an avenue of sphinxes at its bottom, and nearby would rise the Great Sphinx and the Pyramids of Cheops (they could be hollow and used for auditoriums or storehouses). Adjacent to these would rise a new National Museum and a glass and steel National Pavilion.
Not far away a series of houses of all nations, modeled on those built by Viollet Ie Duc for the Paris Exposition of 1867, would be (as Smith phrased it) “the utmost compensation for the great majority of people, who in the limits of economy cannot range the earth for either study or pastime.” The little island of Analostan in the Potomac was to be transformed into an Isola Bella ornamented with a Chaldean Tower at the summit, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, a Roman bath, an Italian palace around a columned court, and “full sized concrete models of Stonehenge, Etrurian tombs, Tiryns and Mycenae, the primitive architecture of Greece, the Catacombs.”
Much of the rest of Washington was also to be transformed. Inspired partly by Haussmann’s spectacular rebuilding of Paris, Smith planned a continuation of the statue-bordered via sacra as a new Centennial Avenue (1900 was the one hundredth anniversary of Washington), 200 feet wide, direct from the portico of the Parthenon to the Capitol. Between the two roadways would be built porticoes, with solaria above.
Pennsylvania Avenue was to be improved. The ramshackle buildings along it were to be condemned; new classical buildings were to be erected; and colonnades twenty feet wide were to be built along much of it to protect pedestrians from rain and sun. Just in front of the Capitol the avenue was to be spanned by a copy of the Brandenburg Gate as a memorial to Abraham Lincoln. The Pennsylvania Railroad Station (since removed) was to be reconstructed on a new site on the plan of the Forum of Trajan with a Column of Peace (Trajan’s Column) in a central plaza.