- The Washington Times - Friday, February 6, 2004

The City Museum’s “Taking a Closer Look: Images From the Albert Small Collection” is an extraordinary chance to experience images of early Washington history through the best collection of its kind.It’s that rare exhibition that delights and educates both schoolchildren and scholars — as well as the general public.

Albert H. Small, 78, a local real estate developer based in Bethesda, amassed the show’s 37 rare prints, posters and maps chronicling the capital city’s birth and growth. The works usually are seen only at Mr. Small’s Southern Engineering Corp. office.

Until now, the art usually has hung in the office cheek-by-jowl and floor-to-ceiling in the 19th-century European “salon style” the collector prefers. Fortunately, after some 50 years of collecting and as a City Museum Board of Trustees member, Mr. Small decided to show selections from his 500-object cache publicly.

Not only did he release his art for others to enjoy, he also picked James M. Goode, 65, a noted urban historian specializing in D.C. history, to select the show. Mr. Goode’s choices couldn’t be better.

Where else in town can visitors find in one room an original April 20, 1865, “Reward Poster” distributed after the assassination of President Lincoln; or an imaginary view of Washington’s Mall as proposed in the site competition for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; or the colored woodcut of “Willard’s Hotel, J.F. Cake, Proprietor, Washington, D.C.” that appeared in the Daily Graphic (New York) on May 4, 1876?

“I selected the items for their rarity and variety, as they were produced over a fairly long time period,” Mr. Goode says.

The historian describes the collector as “a man with an obsession to have something that no one else has and, as a real estate developer, with the resources to go after both rare and unique pieces. When something rare turns up on the market and he knows about it, he goes after it.”

Two such stellar items in the exhibit are the 1792 “Bandana Map of Washington, D.C.” and Mr. Small’s “Map of the Eastern Branch of the Potomack River, St. James Creek, Goose Creek, Etc.,” hand-drawn by German immigrant mapmaker John F.A. Priggs in 1790.

Mr. Goode says the extremely rare “Bandana Map” — printed on cloth — was one of the first souvenirs sold of the capital city. The historian also emphasizes that the Priggs map could be the most significant item in the Small collection, as just two were made.

“It’s the only example to survive and the one map to show the plantations on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers the year before Pierre L’Enfant designed Washington, D.C. There’s nothing like it, as it was drawn by hand and is extremely valuable,” Mr. Goode says.

“Also, be sure to note the amusing alligator in a cage at the bottom. Mr. Priggs must have thought there were alligators in the rivers,” the curator adds.

Mr. Goode worked with Laura Schiavo, exhibitions curator for the City Museum, to provide her with the highest-quality items from the Small Collection in organizing the exhibit into four thematic groups: “Planning for a Capital,” “Washington and War,” “It’s in the Details: Life in the Capital City” and “Mapping the City.”

The two aforementioned maps kicked off the show and its “Planning for a Capital” section. Among several noteworthy works in the “Washington and War” segment — the Civil War, that is — are the beautifully printed and colored 1865 Civil War lithograph of the city’s Camp Fry, as well as the “Reward Poster,” originally used for apprehending the men who planned the attack on President Lincoln.

The poster was one of many broadsides nailed to telegraph poles by the War Department, and Mr. Small’s is one of the few to survive. His, as with all the original posters printed just after Lincoln’s death, had one of the names misspelled. The collector’s poster is also a rarity in that it still has the original photographs glued to it.

In addition, “Life in the Capital City” features what Mr. Goode characterizes as one of the exhibit’s most interesting and rare works.

“Few Washingtonians can imagine Pennsylvania Avenue under water, but that’s what the 1889 photograph ‘Pennsylvania Avenue During the Great Flood’ shows. It illustrates the worst flood in Washington history and is one of the few photos Mr. Small collected,” the historian says.

A collection such as Mr. Small’s is obviously built with careful planning, an indefatigable zest for research and visiting antiques fairs, an eye for quality and aesthetics.

However, luck can play a role, as in his landmark 1861 print and accompanying woodcut of “Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington — Grand Parade Previous to the Invasion of Virginia.” The soft-spoken Mr. Small is usually reticent about discussing his collection, but with this print — his favorite — he opened up.

“My wife, Shirley, had called a dealer friend of mine in New York to buy a special gift for me on my birthday. He sent an original woodblock, made up of 31 sections bolted together for newspaper printing, and I hated it when I opened it up. What would I do with it?

“But, just three weeks later, I saw one of the prints engraved from it at an antiques show and got it for $5 or $10. It’s extremely rare to have the block and the print together,” he says.

“Needless to say, I kept the set,” he says with a chuckle.

The exhibit at the City Museum of Albert Small’s collection is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to “take a walk” through Washington’s early history before Mr. Small returns it to the walls of his Bethesda office.

WHAT: “Taking a Closer Look: Images From the Albert Small Collection”

WHERE: 801 K St. NW at Mount Vernon Square

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, closed Monday, through Sept. 30

TICKETS: $7 for adults and $5 for children younger than 12; group rates available with reservations

PHONE: 202/383-1800

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