The Monuments That Were Never Built

In a new exhibit at the National Building Museum, imagine Washington D.C. as it could have been

(Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY)

Design for National Galleries of History and Art by Franklin Webster Smith, 1900

Franklin Webster Smith was a Boston hardware magnate with no real connection to Washington or to politics. Yet, he ardently believed that the capital should be a cultured place. In 1900, using his own money to promote the idea, he drew up plans for the National Galleries of History and Art, a 62-acre complex extending from 17th Street near the White House to the Potomac River.

“It was this outrageous mélange of just about any architectural style you can imagine—Roman, Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, things coming out of the Indian subcontinent and the Mediterranean,” says Moeller. On a north-south axis through the center of the institution, there was an avenue leading to a replica of the Parthenon, which would serve as a Memorial Temple of the Presidents of the United States.

Smith opened a showroom, called the “Hall of the Ancients” at 1312 New York Avenue NW, where visitors could preview what he had in mind for the galleries’ interior. The New York Times reported that the space included models of Greek, Roman and Egyptian homes and temples that were historically accurate, down to the furniture and the frescoes on the walls.

“He wanted people to be exposed to different cultures in every respect—in costuming, in food, in design, art, architecture,” says Moeller. “A three-dimensional encyclopedia is how he thought of it.”

Smith presented his plans to the Senate. In fact, his illustrated proposal was turned into a book, published by the Government Printing Office. But any actual discussions about building the National Galleries of History and Art—an ambitious and expensive project—were killed in committee and never saw the full Senate floor.


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