“I’m wearing a yellow tie today, too,” Albert H. Small said as I posed him next to his life-size portrait at the George Washington University exhibit space that showcases his collection.
Let the record show that the tie was not the same as the one he was wearing in the oil painting. Small owns at least two neckties.
He owns a lot more, besides. Small is one of the foremost collectors of Washington-centric maps, documents, prints, paintings, manuscripts, books and ephemera, all of which he has donated to GWU. Not long ago, the Washington developer showed me around the Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection at GWU. With him was James M. Goode, the historian and author who has helped Small assemble his collection.
“He holds my wallet,” Small joked.
How do you decide what to buy, I asked.
“If it’s rare,” Goode said. “We want really rare things.”
Things such as the Arnold Map of 1862. Published during the Civil War, the map’s detailed, topographical view of Washington included all 53 forts that guarded the city. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered all the maps confiscated lest they fall into Confederate hands. Small has one. There’s a 1671 map of Maryland, too, the second map of the colony ever published, and a 1904 map of the St. Elizabeths Hospital grounds.
“It’s probably the best map collection outside the Library of Congress,” Goode said.
The son of a Washington builder, Small grew up on Nevada Avenue NW, back when the Chevy Chase street was unpaved. He went to Wilson High, served in the Navy and attended George Washington University’s Law School.
Small was 21 when he started his collection, in 1949. His girlfriend (and now wife), Shirley, was going to school in Manhattan. He’d visit her on weekends. As part of her studies, Shirley had to work a retail job on Saturdays. That left Small with time to kill.
“I had nothing to do,” he said. “I walked around New York City. It was eclectic then. I would go down little side streets. One Saturday, I walked into an old-book shop.”
Small had never had much interest in old-book shops, but he was captivated by something he found there. It wasn’t a printed book, but the handwritten account of a man named Fred E. Woodward, who every weekend in the spring and summer of 1905 visited Washington’s boundary stones, those sandstone markers set every mile establishing the capital’s borders.
Woodward had compiled his findings in a manuscript that included the stones’ history, descriptions of their condition, along with photographs he took on his modest expeditions around the District: girls in pinafores, men in boaters.
“And that was an interesting thing to me,” Small said of his first purchase. “That got me hooked.”
Woodward would prove to be a prescient predictor of the Washington area’s growth — and, after a fashion, of Small himself. As Woodward later recounted to the Historical Society of Washington, recalling a mossy glade he visited near a boundary stone in Chevy Chase: “To this secluded spot have now come the surveyors with transit and steel tape and they, followed by the axe men, have carved a broad lane through the massive woods and ‘Boundary Avenue’ with various intersecting streets will soon be its near neighbors, and houses and people will congregate, in its vicinity.”
Small spent his career helping people congregate. His company, Southern Engineering Corp., has built more than 30,000 units of housing across the region, from apartment buildings in Southeast to starter homes in Wheaton, Md. He’s as much a part of the history of Washington as the books and maps he continues to collect at age 90.
“I get about 400 catalogues a year,” he told me, and then to Goode: “A few more came this week.”
Goode started working for Small in 1992, when the collection had about 200 objects. Now it has 1,100. The Small collection is not so small. It includes seven letters from George Washington; a tiny swatch of wallpaper from the Ford’s Theatre box Abraham Lincoln was sitting in the night he was assassinated; a fetching 1888 jigsaw puzzle of the U.S. Capitol; and a collection of ephemera from a man named Jon Meyers who saved everything from his stint as a House page in 1967, from his name tag to a Capitol cafeteria menu.
GWU students have access to Small’s collection for their studies, and so do you. The reading room is open for research by appointment. To schedule one, visit museum.gwu.edu and email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Highlights from the Small Washingtoniana Collection are on display at the George Washington University Museum, 701 21st St. NW. It’s open Monday, Wednesday–Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Saturdays 10 to 5 and Sundays 1 to 5.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.