Today, the National Mall in D.C. is a serene, landscaped strip of land capped by the Capitol on one end and the obelisk of the Washington Monument on the other.
The runway of green is flanked by a smattering of buildings—Smithsonian museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Natural History, and the newest offering, the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The variety of attractions have been added one-by-one for over a century and left plenty of breathing room for tourists to wander around and enjoy the outdoors in between bursts of cultural enlightenment.
It’s a destination that has inspired Americans for decades, but it’s not quite what Franklin Webster Smith had in mind.
Smith was a 19th-century Boston businessman with a passion for culture and some seriously big ideas about how to improve his nation’s capital. He would ultimately stake his fortune on the 62-acre plan he called the “National Gallery of History and Art”—and that The New York Times labelled a “stupendous scheme.” It would ultimately be his downfall.
Smith was born into a middle class Boston family in 1826. As an adult, he earned his wealth as a merchant who specialized in selling naval parts. He was well-respected in his community and sat on the boards of several industrial companies in town, while he dedicated himself to moral causes during his free time.
Smith was an early abolitionist and, after the financial crash of the 1870s, he proselytized for giving aid to unemployed industrial workers by moving them out to the countryside and retraining them to be farmers.
He was an upstanding American, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the mutton-chopped Bostonian.
In 1864, he ran afoul of the U.S. Navy, who retaliated against his involvement in a whistleblower case concerning Navy corruption by accusing him in turn of engaging in graft in the course of carrying out his marine equipment business.
For two weeks, Smith languished in jail while his personal and professional property was seized and searched. It took the intervention of none other than President Lincoln to free him from Naval clutches. After being asked to take a look at the case, Lincoln realized that the unfortunate merchant was being held on trumped up charges and he personally overturned the verdict.
His help came just in the nick of time. Only one month later, Lincoln was assassinated.
While Smith may have been a titan of the Boston merchant class, his true passion was for ancient culture. Starting with the 1851 London World’s Fair, Smith made 17 pilgrimages to Europe to study the art and architecture of past civilizations. He used the knowledge he soaked up on his travels to dabble in his own design work, always paying homage to the great feats of the past.
In St. Augustine, Florida, Smith built a summer home that was based on the Zorayda tower of the Alhambra in Spain (he proudly disclosed his inspiration by naming his residence the Villa Zorayda).
In Saratoga Springs, NY, he built a replica of a Pompeii house on the eve of the infamous volcanic eruption, complete with accurate furnishings and decor. This project was open to the public and was the start of Smith’s interest in creating educational spaces for all Americans, particularly those who may not have the means to travel abroad to the original source.
The Pompeii project completed in the late 1880s was a big success and it sparked an even bigger idea. Watching the delight of visitors who came through the (new) old Roman home, Smith thought, why not establish an even bigger museum that would be free, open to the public, and a tribute to the nation? And why not place this walking ode to ancient civilizations (with a little American history thrown in, of course) on the National Mall in the nation’s capital?
Smith’s idea to redesign Washington—or at least the most famous bits of the city—didn’t come entirely out of left field. Around the turn of the 20th century, there was a movement afoot to re-plan the capital, which was more of a rundown town than a shining beacon of democracy.
In a 1956 article on Smith, professor Curtis Dahl explained the aesthetic issues the country was facing: “In 1900 the United States had an inferiority complex… 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.”
It was a conundrum perfectly suited to Smith who not only revered the study of ancient cultures, but who had also dedicated much of his free time to making culture accessible to all.
As Dahl put it, he “proposed one of the most grandiose schemes that has ever been seriously suggested. His intention 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.”
Now, his idea was not to spotlight the original cultural offerings of the U.S.; it was rather to keep Americans home by bringing the treasures of Europe to them, primarily through Smith’s favorite pastime—replicas. He would do this by creating a massive walking museum called the “National Gallery of History and Art” that would span the full National Mall and beyond.
The heart of the complex was to be eight separate galleries that would flank the mall leaving only a narrow strip of green in the center. Each building was to display the great feats of one ancient civilization, with the Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Medieval, Saracenic, and East Indian cultures all represented.
Inside the buildings would be space to display the art and sculpture—both originals and reproductions—that best represented the achievements of the particular period. In the courtyard in the middle of each building would be replicas of their architectural feats.
Smith did not think small. In just the courtyard of the Roman Museum, he envisioned replicas of Trajan’s Column, the Pompeii ruins, the Palace of Scaurus, and more tributes to the best of ancient Rome.
He also was something of a fan of the “new” even while he glorified the old. He didn’t want any old ruins represented; he wanted to show these treasures when they were at their prime.
Rather than original pieces, Smith preferred pristine replicas that banished all “broken or imperfect objects” from the museum. As part of this move, he declared that all buildings and structures were to be made of the relatively new invention: reinforced concrete.
Smith was also a patriotic American, so it wasn’t all European ancients that he wanted to glorify. He planned an “American Acropolis” on top of the hill on 24th Street overlooking where the Kennedy Center now stands. It was to be filled with statues and portraits of the American presidents as well as murals and other artistic depictions of the struggles they faced on their way to becoming revered leaders.
He threw in a hodgepodge of other elements throughout his massive museum complex to attract and educate tourists. An army of sphinxes would line the path leading up to the Washington Monument; reproductions of the Great Sphinx, Egyptian pyramids, the Rheinstein castle, and the Pompeii forum were planned; and the little slice of green between the main drag of museums was to feature re-creations of famous arches.
The plan was grandiose. Smith recruited the renowned architect James Renwick, who had designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, to help him. He toured the country giving lectures on his idea to spread the message, and in 1898, he convinced a fellow businessman to fund a single D.C. attraction called the Halls of the Ancients that would be an example of the grand cultural achievement that could be. It stood for several decades before being torn down in 1926 to make way for a parking garage.
Smith also secured support from members of Congress for his plan. While a commission would be launched in 1902 to spearhead the redesign of parts of the city, Smith’s plan was officially presented to Congress on Feb. 12, 1900 by Sen. George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts.
They didn’t bite. By all accounts, Smith’s crazy plan wasn’t widely derided as crazy; he had the support of business leaders and some politicians. But their interest wasn’t strong enough to actually earn him a green light.
One large impediment was the price tag. The eight museums alone were estimated to cost $10 million.
But the merchant wasn’t asking for Congress to find the funds all at once. As he repeatedly stressed, he thought his plan should be built piecemeal, with the government funding the first stage. After the first few buildings were opened (to the amazement all visitors, of course), his museum concept would be proven and the project would attract corporate funding to bear the rest of the cost.
But it wasn’t enough. Smith would spend the rest of his life—and his not insignificant financial fortune—trying to convince others of the merits of the National Gallery of History and Art. He died in 1911, “living in poverty and obscurity in rural New Hampshire, repudiated by his family for his crackpot causes,” as Benita J. Howell wrote in the magazine Border States.
Smith once passionately wrote that “the desire for knowledge by the people waits for the use of their abundant wealth to aid its acquisition.”
Today, as you wander the green parks and museums on the National Mall, remember the man who gave up his own abundant wealth in an effort to achieve his American dream—a country where the acquisition of culture and knowledge was available to all... and came wrapped in an over-the-top package of European replicas made of concrete.