There is chaos, yes, but out of it small events sometimes turn slowly, so slowly, and moving ever round in a circle close upon themselves and are complete in time.
On April 26, 1879, Richard Rothwell and Richard Lloyd entered with the Smithsonian into an agreement to construct certain parts of a "fire-proof building for the National Museum." Among these were the granite work of the base of the building, window sills, bond stones and "wrought work of the four main entrances."
The construction was completed and so it remained until about 1910 when the "fire-proof" building, now known as the Arts and Industries Building near the Castle, underwent some redecorating. Sacrifice to the new plans was the original iron work, four sets of Victorian gates, replaced by Beaux Arts entrances. These were sold and many years passed and they were not remembered.
Until last year. In November, Dan E. Pomeroy of the Tennessee State Museum wrote a letter to Frank Piedropaoli, the National Museum of History and Technology librarian. The museum in Tennessee had found two sets of iron gates and considered purchasing them. The vendor, wrote Pomeroy, "alleges that they hung at the U.S. Capitol in the 1830s." Piedropaoli forwarded the letter to the architect of the Capitol where Forian H. Thayn, head of the art and reference division there, found that "the photographs and paintings we have of the old gates (of the Capitol) differ considerably, from the gate illustrated in your letter."
Finally, on Dec. 18, the Tennessee museum's Pomeroy wrote the curator of the Smithsonian Castle building, James Goode, to ask about the gates. "I recognized them immediately," says Goode. They had been hung at the Arts and Industries building nearly 100 years earlier.
"We thought the original gates had been thrown out," said Goode. "We had no idea they stillexisted."
The gates were offered for sale by the 80-year-old Mrs. Joseph Caldwell of Blountville, Tenn.
Slowly Goode unraveled the story:
Apparently soon after they were dismounted from the Arts and Industries entrances in 1910, the gates came into the hands of a Gray family from Arlington, Va. The Grays installed them on the grounds of their 375-acre Arlington estate called Alcova. In 1915, Washington attorney George C. Byars purchased the house and the land and reared his daughter there.
The Byars' daughter married the son of Adm. Robert Edward Coontz, commander of the U.S. fleet during World War I, and for many years she traveled in the highest circles and enjoyed the good life of Washington society. In her days as a Washington hostess, she was called upon to entertain the young aviator, Charles Lindbergh, and to keep him awake at receptions by poking him in the ribs.
But the bright lights of the "20s dimmed during the Depression and so Alcova could not be kept. Mrs. Coontz packed up her gates, thinking they were from the Capitol, and other possessions and moved to Tennessee. She later bought and restored the Old Deery Inn on the main road from Washington to Nashville. She began collecting historic old buildings and moving them to her four-acre estate. She married again to a county judge, Joseph Caldwell.
Goode told the Tennessee State Museum that these were not the gates they were looking for. Seeking to claim them as the Smithsonian's own he went to Mrs. Caldwell's in January. She had hung the pair that was in mint condition and had no intention of selling them. But she had another set that had been run over by a truck, Goode learned. The price was $1,000.
In 10-degree weather Goode got down on his hands and knees and crawled under the Caldwell porch, where he found a pair of the gates of Rothwell and Lloyd, all 72 pieces, in boxes and rusting away. A neighbor crated up the pieces and the gates came back to the care of ironsmith Tony Giordano at the Criss Brothers Iron Works in Bladensburg, Md.
"The only other pair of gates I know of in the city that are of that quality," says Goode, "are the gates to Rock Creek Cemetery."
The gates - as well as the Arts and Industries building - were designed by Adolph Cluss (also architect of the Eastern Market and the Franklin School). The medallion he chose for the gates appears everywhere on the building, on the spandrels and between the windows. The Smithsonian already has spent more than $2 million restoring the Arts and Industries building. As Tony Giordano knows, though he will only wink when asked, the national museum is sparing no expense on its long-lost gates.
Much of the wrought iron has rusted so badly that Giordano replaced it. Points were broken off the finials and he fashioned new ones. Decorative plates were lost in quantity. Cast pieces that are so fragile they break like glass if you drop them were irreparable. So few fragments were left of some decorative pieces that Giordano reconstructed them in paper from an old picture to make a pattern for them to be recast in Lancaster, Pa.
Giordano has worked six weeks on these gates. His hands are very black from the work.He knows that it will be at least another month before they are finally finished if he gets the parts he needs. He knows too that the gates were made by a master. He's found the work hard enough - and he has the blow torches they didn't have in 1879. The master did not sign them but Giordano says he has.
"I got my name already somewhere where nobody's going to see it."
Then they will return to a place of honor at the Arts and Industries building, perhaps alone or perhaps one day joined by another pair that remains in Blountville. But that is an event still turning and may need more time before it is complete. CAPTION: Illustration, The southern gateway to the " National Museum" from the Smithsonian Institution archives.; Picture 1, Ironsmith Tony Giordano with part of the Smithsonian's gate, which he is restoring; Picture 2, the old gate is identified in this photo as "East Gate at Alcova, Arlington, Va. Top photo by Joel Richardson - The Washington Post; left photo from the Smithsonian