- 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
Sixteenth Street was to be broadened and ennobled into Executive Avenue. Though the old White House was to be retained as a national shrine, a new one, on much more impressive classical lines but with more than a hint of the Palace of Versailles, would be built arching over the new Executive Avenue. Within its confines would be extensive gardens and a mansion for visiting celebrities.
A plan of this magnitude, elaborated in such detail, was obviously not the work of a day. For fifty years Franklin Webster Smith, born in Boston in 1825, had labored over it.
Smith had a holy zeal for the amelioration of his fellows and his country. He had been an early abolitionist, a founder of the Republican party in Massachusetts, a founder of the Y.M.C.A. in America, a leading Baptist layman and Sunday School superintendent. During the Civil War his charges of corruption in the Navy Department so angered the naval officials that in revenge they had him, though a civilian, convicted by a general court-martial of fraud against the government in contracts for naval hardware. Smith was rescued only by the strenuous efforts of Senator Charles Sumner and the shrewd justice of Abraham Lincoln, who summarily overturned the conviction. Later Smith was one of the principal American projectors of a colonization scheme that eventually resulted in Thomas Hughes’s gentlemanly British settlement at Rugby, Tennessee.
But in addition to his philanthropic interests Smith, though not himself an architect, had a hobby of making models of famous buildings. Seeking to retain his memories of the sights he had seen on his trip abroad, as early as 1851 he had built little scale models of such edifices as Kenilworth Castle, Holyrood Palace, and the Porta Maggiore. As the years went on he added to his collection Chinese pagodas, East Indian temples, the city of Wittenberg, and a host of others.
It was in 1888–89, however, that his propensity for model-making came into full flower. It was then that Smith built in Saratoga Springs his Pompeia or House of Pansa, a full-scale completely furnished reconstruction of one of the villas described in Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii. For many years this was a prime attraction to sightseers in the spa city. It was here that he slowly matured his plan for the Acropolis and National Galleries.
Though Smith had printed and distributed his Design and Prospectus in 1891, he waited because of the depression until 1898 to launch his full-fledged campaign. Then, with backing of Mr. Woodward, he erected in an old skating rink on New York Avenue his Halls of the Ancients, which (though huge) were small examples of what he intended the National Galleries to be.
The Halls, whose portal was a brilliantly painted reconstruction in full scale of the Hypostyle Hall of Karnak with columns seventy feet high and twelve feet in diameter, included an Egyptian Hall of Gods and Kings, a complete Roman house modeled after those of Vettius and Pansa in Pompeii, an Assyrian throne room with casts of slabs brought back by Layard from Nineveh, and a reconstruction of the Moorish patio in the House of Bensaquin in Tangiers.
Today, so much have tastes changed, Smith’s proposals sound utterly fantastic. It is hard to believe how seriously they were taken at the beginning of the century. Smith received an amazing volume of support.
An exceedingly persuasive speaker with great personal charm, he indefatigably gave illustrated lectures all across the country—at the Pompeia, in Washington, on the West Coast, on ocean liners, wherever he happened to be on his constant travels. He lobbied with Congress, distributing to every congressman a copy of his Design and Prospectus and persuading the Senate to print up his sizable and copiously illustrated book as a government document. He managed (as he proudly said) to get 225 commendatory articles printed in the newspapers of 51 cities in 25 states.
He requested and received letters of support trom the secretary of the navy, the speaker of the house, the president of the National Education Association, and numerous senators, businessmen, and educators. Numbers of foreign scholars, directors of museums, and experts of various kinds corresponded with him in all seriousness. What is even more impressive is that he received commendation and help from the architectural profession. He was acclaimed by the San Francisco Chapter of Architects. His early plans were drafted for him by James Renwick, architect of Grace Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and the Corcoran Art Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. After Renwick’s death in 1895, Paul J. Pelz, principal architect of the Library of Congress, offered his “gratuitous services as advisory architect.” Smith was also assisted by Henry Ives Cobb, architect of the Univerity of Chicago and the new Pennsylvania state capitol. To these men Smith’s proposals evidently were not bizarre.