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Mr. Smith’s American Acropolis

June 2024
12min read

Washington would be a capital of Egyptian pillars and Roman splendor if this hardware merchant’s grandiose plan had been adopted

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.

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.

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.

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.

As far as can be ascertained, Smith’s Petition with its attendant proposals was never reported out of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia. Perhaps the senators of those days had no artistic taste, or perhaps they had too much. Like his scheme, Smith himself fell upon hard times. In 1906 all his projects—in Washington, Saratoga Springs, and St. Augustine—were foreclosed. By the time of his death in obscurity in 1911, his dreams of “alabaster cities,” though based firmly on concrete, had been wholly shattered. Washington, alas, as yet shows no signs of becoming the new Athens of the world.

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