That was the name of Smith’s self-funded museum, which opened in 1899 at 1312-1318 New York Ave. NW, where the Inter-American Development Bank stands today.
True to its name, the Halls of the Ancients was chock full of old stuff — or stuff that looked old, anyway. It was a celebration of ancient cultures: Assyrian, Egyptian, Roman and Saracen. It was most notable for its entryway: A re-creation of the Hypostyle Hall of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt. The brightly painted three-story facade was encrusted with ankhs, ibis and those uniquely postured pyramid builders who walked like Egyptians because that’s who they were.
Though the most recent occupant of that corner had been a Lansburgh department store — destroyed by fire in 1896 — many Washingtonians called that spot “the rink.” For years, a roller skating rink had operated there.
By the time Smith built the Halls of the Ancients, he was gray-haired and luxuriantly mutton-chopped. Born in 1826, he made his fortune as a Boston hardware merchant. Smith supplied the U.S. military during the Civil War and was briefly jailed for contracting improprieties. He claimed this was in retaliation for blowing the whistle on corrupt Navy officials and was later pardoned by Abraham Lincoln.
Before and after the war, Smith traveled the globe. In 1851, he visited the Great Exhibition in London’s Crystal Palace.
“I’m guessing he went as a businessperson and came away amazed by the world,” said Jeremy Graboyes, a District lawyer and amateur historian. Graboyes became fascinated by Smith after finding mentions of the Halls of the Ancients in old District guidebooks. He recounted Smith’s story on his blog, DuckPie.com.
Before creating the attraction in Washington, Smith constructed several other history-themed buildings. In Saratoga Springs, N.Y., he built the House of Pansa, a full-scale reconstruction of a Roman villa as described in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s “The Last Days of Pompeii.” In St. Augustine, Fla., he built a house, the Villa Zorayda, and a hotel, the Casa Monica, inspired by Moorish architecture.
These were fine as far as they went, but Smith harbored a grander scheme: A massive collection of buildings in Washington collectively known as the National Galleries of History and Art.
In an essay promoting his idea, Smith quoted a British critic who damned America as “the apotheosis of Philistinism; where the people are drunk with materialism, and wealth is a curse instead of a blessing.”
Harsh, but Smith thought there was some truth to it. The United States was among the wealthiest nations in the world but only financially, he maintained. It was time to put as much energy into “mental and moral elevation.”
Smith was of the belief that strolling among accurate facsimiles of ancient cultures could infuse Americans with the qualities that had made those cultures successful. He proposed a complex of buildings stretching west from 17th and B streets NW (today’s Constitution Avenue) all the way to the Potomac. Crowning it all — on the bluff where the Naval Observatory stands — would be a temple honoring U.S. presidents: an American Parthenon.
Smith proposed that everything be built of concrete, which he valued for its low cost and malleability.
As Smith lobbied Congress to embrace his plan, he built the Halls of the Ancients. Said Graboyes: “He wanted to redo this whole city, and this was his sales office, basically.”
The attraction was a proof-of-concept undertaking, admission 50 cents. Visitors passed through an Egyptian Hall of the Kings and then into a reproduction 15,000-square-foot Roman house, complete with sunken atrium and a triclinium — dining room — with the sort of couches Romans reclined on while eating.
On the second floor was an Assyrian throne room, a Saracenic Hall and an auditorium for lectures. The third floor featured a model of Smith’s National Galleries.
Graboyes thinks Smith had soured on industrialization and wanted to show Americans a simpler, nobler time. “That’s the sense I get reading his stuff: ‘I want to go back to the ancient world,’ ” he said.
Well, a certain segment of it. There wasn’t room in Smith’s vision for sub-Saharan Africa, Asia or South America.
Said Graboyes: “It’s an old White guy view of the ancient world.”
Though Smith worked tirelessly on his project — welcoming students, church groups and civic organizations to the Halls of the Ancients — Congress never adopted his dream. Washington did get a Classical makeover — the McMillan Plan — but it was simpler, its buildings made of gleaming white stone, not concrete.
That’s probably a good thing.
“We’ve all seen how concrete ages over time,” Graboyes said. “It would have been a mess.”
Smith didn’t own the land on which the Halls of the Ancients stood. It closed in 1905. Smith died in 1911. For a while, a mechanic used the space. Eventually the building was torn down, and in its place rose a temple to a different god: the city’s first multilevel parking garage.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.