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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 02/28/2011

Albert H. Small gives rare papers to George Washington University

By Jacqueline Trescott
Albert H. Small.

Correction: Earlier versions of this post misstated the original size of the District of Columbia as 10 square miles. The District was originally a square with 10-mile sides, equaling 100 square miles. This version has been updated

Albert H. Small, a prominent Washington collector and real estate developer, is giving his extensive archives of Washington history to George Washington University, the college is announcing Monday.

Small, a native Washingtonian, is also donating $5 million to the university for the renovation of a historic home on the campus and to help build an adjacent museum. The building, the 156-year-old Woodhull House, will contain the documents and be renamed for its benefactor.

The collection has almost 700 pieces, including several rare maps. A letter written by George Washington to Congress in 1790 outlining the 100 square miles that would be the capital is one of the prized artifacts. The gift also includes a hand-drawn map, made by surveyor John Frederick Augustus Priggs in 1790, which shows the rivers and the road that ran from Georgetown to Anacostia called the Ferry Road.

It also includes a bandana, sold as a souvenir, with the design of the first engraved map of Washington and an 1810 cooper plate that was used to print money for the Bank of Columbia in Georgetown.

"I have been building this collection for 50, almost 60 years. I wanted to place it somewhere where it could get the best exposure for people," said Small. "George Washington is going to set up a program for the study of the collection. And every year another group of students will use it and it will be a continuing thing."

"It is going to be a tremendous resource for students and scholars," said university president Steven Knapp. "It is a way of preserving the important documents and it is a way to study American history through the growth of the capital city."

Peg Barratt, dean of the school's Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, said the research benefits are many. "The geography department talks about the collection as a national treasure. The materials provide a mental map about how people thought about what they were seeing, how the use of the land changed, how the population changed," Barratt said.

Both Knapp and Barratt described the uniqueness of the manuscripts. "In the 1880s there were plans for a World's Fair, for the 400th anniversary of the so-called discovery of the New World. Washington leaders vied for that. There is a lithograph from 1888 of what the Mall would have looked like if the fair was held here. There were 4 lakes southwest of the Washington Monument. It's fascinating to see how people in the past imagined the city would look like," Knapp said.

Barratt said the social history was strong in the collection. "There is an illustration of the National Farm School, which was a Negro orphanage, and the pictures are very idyllic. It tells us what people were thinking in 1867," Barratt said.

James M. Goode, a historian, has helped Small assemble the maps, prints and photographs. "He collects through auctions, print shows and catalogs. He must get 400 catalogs a year. The rarer the material, the more excited he gets," Goode said. The Washington letter got away once. "About 30 years ago the letter was at auction and Small was the low bidder. It went to Malcolm Forbes. When Forbes died, it went up on auction again and Small bought it."

Small was insistent that the collection be kept intact, said Goode. "George Washington has had a division on Washington history in their American Studies program for 40 years. He decided that was the best place for it because it will be used for research by the students."

Small, 85, president of Southern Engineering Corp., is a graduate of the University of Virginia, which houses his collection of papers related to the Declaration of Independence. In a special collections library, named for Small, there is a display of autographed letters of all 56 signers of the Declaration, and one of the few existing printings by John Dunlap of the Declaration.

In 2009 Small was awarded the National Humanities Medal. Through the years he has been a key philanthropist to many Washington cultural institutions, including the Library of Congress, the National Museum of American History, the National Symphony Orchestra, the National Archives and Mount Vernon.

His interest started right after World War II when the Navy veteran found a manuscript in a bookstore in New York City. As his collection grew, he mounted the artifacts throughout his headquarters in Bethesda.

Small said the history of his hometown has always been a fascination for him, and a subject he thinks has been overlooked. "Most people don't know this history. You can be an average person and not know anything about the history of the city. We have a real thriving capital now, but back in 1790 it was a swamp," Small said.

A hand-drawn map, made by surveyor John Frederick Augustus Priggs in 1790. (Courtesy of George Washington University)

A letter written by George Washington to Congress. (Courtesy of George Washington University)

A Washington D.C. scene. (Courtesy of George Washington University)

By Jacqueline Trescott  | February 28, 2011; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Jacqueline Trescott, Museums  | Tags:  Albert H. Small, donation to George Washington University, George Washington University, papers on Washington history  
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Any reason why the city's public university isn't receiving any of this material? I'd think they'd be the more obvious stewards for Washington history.

Posted by: bmarcus220 | February 28, 2011 9:25 AM | Report abuse

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