Transcripts

Dreaming Big in Foggy Bottom

MR. ROB SACHS

13:26:36
So we just heard the plan for D.C. 40 years ago. But what about a 100 years ago? Now, Rebecca, I understand you had a little outing this week where you explored some grandiose dreams for the district with our resident historian Paul Dickson. Is that right?

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:26:51
I did. I met Paul on the corner of 13th and New York Avenue in Northwest D.C. It was a really chilly afternoon and he told me this story of this guy. His name was Franklin Webster Smith. He was a social reformer and a merchant from Boston, born in 1826, died in 1911. Anyway, we were looking at the -- hang on, we were looking at the Northwest corner of the intersection. And nowadays, there's this basic brown brick building, lots of glass windows. But as Paul Dickson will tell you, back in the day, that wasn't the case.

MR. PAUL DICKSON

13:27:20
Between 1898 and 1926, there was this remarkable large structure called the 10 Halls of the Ancients put there to replicate 10 ancient cultures from Roman, Abyssinian, Egyptian in wonderfully large halls, which were interactive in the sense that you could walk in there and get a real sense for what those ancient places were. The Roman culture was in the form of a tavern and there would be little elements of everyday life, as well as fine pieces of art.

MR. PAUL DICKSON

13:27:54
So this is what Smith envisioned, but he also envisioned that this was a stalking horse for a huge museum between 17th and 23rd Street on Virginia Avenue going down to the river. And he envisioned this monstrous 40-acre campus down there in which all of these halls would be repeated in a much larger scale. In fact, this was 1/64 the scale of the buildings that were going to be built on Virginia Avenue. He lobbied congress for money. He wanted to eventually raise $10 million to build the larger structure, but he ran out of steam.

MR. PAUL DICKSON

13:28:29
Things happen. The United States got involved in the Spanish-American war, which is very costly. And even though he had a lot of support and a lot of interest in this, he never was able to raise the money to build the big campus down on Virginia Avenue. And again, it would've been phenomenal. It would've looked like nothing else on earth, if he'd accomplished it.

SHEIR

13:28:49
But it sounds like even this Halls of the Ancients, this 1/64 size replica, even that sounds pretty amazing. I mean, for example, when you walked into the Egypt room, what would you see?

DICKSON

13:28:58
You would immediately see these 70-foot columns, these Egyptian columns. And then, you would see huge building blocks as were used to build the pyramids. The next door you might've come into, I don't know the exact layout, but you may have come into the throne of the Abyssinian king. So it was really a precursor of the theme fark (sp?) of the interactive, being sort of taken back in a time machine, as opposed to being just hauled into a room of a lot of arrowheads or dishes or something and saying, this is what people used to eat of in ancient (word?) .

SHEIR

13:29:27
Do you know why Franklin Webster Smith wanted it to be in Washington, D.C.?

DICKSON

13:29:30
I think he felt that Washington D.C. needed it. I think he had the blessing -- he was from Boston. He had the blessings of the existing museums in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, where these museums of antiquity were already established. And I think he felt Washington really needed one, sort of a center in the past as well what the Smithsonian did -- was doing. But the Smithsonian was mainly concerned with a culture of the new world, of the United States and North America.

DICKSON

13:29:56
So I think this is what his vision was and he had tremendous support from the newspapers, educators, artists, patrons of the art. I mean, he was a very friendly guy, who got a lot of testimonials, gave a lot of lectures on this and he was a strange visionary. One of my favorite stories that I've read about him is that he became fascinated by Pompeii and the destruction of Pompeii. And he hired all these French artisans to go down to Naples where Pompeii was and to recreate the village of Pompeii using native materials from the area, the clays and the wood and everything and then shipped it all to Saratoga, New York, where he rebuilt Pompeii. And Saratoga, without a volcano, it was safe -- and it was safe there.

SHEIR

13:30:40
Clearly, Smith dreamed big.

DICKSON

13:30:42
Yeah, yeah. He just saw this role for himself as somebody who would capture these ancient cultures and bring them back.

SHEIR

13:30:49
So in the mid '20s, the Halls of the Ancients went away. Smith never got his national galleries. Would you say then that his dream is dead?

DICKSON

13:30:58
I don't think so. I think, in one sense, his dream was deferred. I think he really saw the need for a new kind of museum, a new kind of looking at the past. And, I think, in a funny way, he set the tone for the interactive museums of the late 20th century and the -- which is still with us, the idea that museums were not just passive. I think the theme parks owed something to what he did, I mean, some of the bigger theme parks. I think he was probably, there's some Disney in him.

DICKSON

13:31:28
The idea that he could transport somebody back to a Roman tavern, which is sort of a fun idea. It's cool that we -- if you and I could go to a Roman tavern right now and drink some mead, it would be very revealing.

SHEIR

13:31:41
Well, unfortunately, we can't do that. But Paul Dickson, still it's been pleasure as always, speaking with you today, thank you.

DICKSON

13:31:46
Thank you.

SHEIR

13:31:47
Paul Dickson is co-author of, "On This Spot: Pinpointing the Past in Washington D.C." To learn more about Franklin Webster Smith's ginormous national gallery history and art, which, by the way, would have included an acropolis with a full-sized replica of the Parthenon.

SACHS

13:32:03
Really, the Parthenon?

SHEIR

13:32:04
The Parthenon.

SACHS

13:32:05
Whoa.

SHEIR

13:32:05
Visit our website metroconnection.org.
Transcripts of WAMU programs are available for personal use. Transcripts are provided "As Is" without warranties of any kind, either express or implied. WAMU does not warrant that the transcript is error-free. For all WAMU programs, the broadcast audio should be considered the authoritative version. Transcripts are owned by WAMU 88.5 FM American University Radio and are protected by laws in both the United States and international law. You may not sell or modify transcripts or reproduce, display, distribute, or otherwise use the transcript, in whole or in part, in any way for any public or commercial purpose without the express written permission of WAMU. All requests for uses beyond personal and noncommercial use should be referred to (202) 885-1200.