The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
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Many people think of the National Mall in Washington, DC, as one long undifferentiated stretch of green from the base of Capitol Hill to the Washington Monument. In times past, however, parts of the Mall not only had specific names but were covered by structures unimaginable today, including a railroad station and train tracks. The plot bounded by Constitution Avenue on the north, Independence Avenue on the south, Sixth Street on the east and Seventh Street on the west is a good example.
Beginning in 1855, the Armory Building, built to store arms for the city's volunteer militia companies, occupied the southeastern corner of this twenty-two-acre area, which then became known as Armory Park or Armory Square. During the Civil War, the building anchored a hospital complex with multiple temporary structures. After the close of the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, the Armory Building was used as temporary storage for exhibit materials transferred to the United States National Museum. It was later used by the US Fish and Fisheries Commission (1881-1932). The building stood on the site until 1964. The west end of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum (built 1972-1976) occupies the site today.
In 1887, the head of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds wrote Spencer F. Baird, secretary of the Smithsonian as well as head of the Fish Commission, to suggest renaming Armory Park in honor of Joseph Henry: "Among the eminent scientists of the present century, no man stood higher in every possible way, than your distinguished predecessor, Prof. Henry." Joseph Henry, a prominent physicist, had been elected in 1846 as the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and continued until his death in 1878.
Despite the renaming, the old name persisted. In 1913, fourth Smithsonian Secretary Charles Doolittle Walcott described the site as Armory Square in reference to the proposed (but never built) George Washington Memorial Building, which was to border Constitution Avenue and be administered by the Smithsonian. Four years later, however, when temporary buildings for use of the army and navy departments began to cover the site, official documents referred to the location as Henry Park.
At the time of the renaming in 1887, the northern end of the site was dominated by the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station, which had been built in the mid-1870s, and a 510-ft.-long train shed that extended partway across the Mall. Tracks continued south across the Mall along Sixth Street. The station and tracks were abandoned in 1907 when Union Station was opened; the old station was demolished the following year. Clay tennis courts that had been installed beginning in 1916 were removed in 1936 to make way for the construction of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art (built 1937-1941). Complaints following the demolition of the tennis courts included one from E. Claude Babcock, president of the American Federation of Government Employees and also secretary of the Smithsonian Tennis Association.
A search of old issues of The Washington Post might lead one to conclude that the name "Henry Park" went out of existence with the tennis courts in the mid-1930s. But recently it seems to have resurfaced. A muggle Quidditch tournament was to be held in Henry Park in April 2011, before muddy conditions forced it to relocate. Those planning to attend comedian Jon Stewart's 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity were directed to "an area known (to someone, at least) as East Seaton Park and Henry Park, between 3rd and 7th streets NW on the Mall." In response, a commenter complained, "There is no East Seaton Park, and there is no Henry Park. In fact, people keep moving those labels around the Mall on the Google Maps. It's all the National Mall."
Despite that claim, Henry Park has appeared in the very official Geographic Names Information System, maintained by the United States Geological Survey, since 1991. The entry lists "Armory Grounds" as a variant name. If you follow the link under Mapping Services to "GNIS in Google Map," you will see a red balloon in the correct section of the Mall. But if you click the red balloon to see "feature detail," you are taken to a tiny Henry Park designated by an icon just southwest of the intersection of Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues near the West Wing of the National Gallery of Art. Might the wizards of Hogwarts have something to do with this transformation?
- Record Unit 7471 - George Washington Memorial Association, Records, 1890-1922, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Dian Olson Belanger, "The Railroad in the Park: Washington's Baltimore & Potomac Station, 1872-1907," Washington History, vol. 2, no. 1 (spring 1990), pp. 4-27.
- For information on Henry Park, see Kay Fanning, Cultural Landscape Inventory (Inventory Number 600213), 2006, pp. 12-20 (chronology), and 48 [graphic], and Historic American Buildings Survey No. DC-678, pp. 15, 18, 20, 36-38.
- For additional information on E. Claude Babcock, see Morgan Baker, "The Federal Diary," Washington Post, April 7, 1935.
- World Cup VII, International Quidditch Association
"Truth is stranger than fiction" is the adage that immediately came to mind when I stumbled across this odd bit of Smithsonian history. In 1848, first Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry helped write a proposal to create an International Board of Subterranean Exploration. This joint endeavor between the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and Belgium aimed to test Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s theory that the Earth’s core was molten. Additionally, the explorations would seek to uncover the magnetic condition of the earth’s crust and to analyze coal measures. Joseph Henry was noted for his pioneering research into magnetic phenomena, so this was a topic that interested him.
To begin their work, the commission decided the best way to explore the subterreanean parts of of our world would be to excavate a shaft into the center of Earth. The report stated that the committee selected a site in Bruges, Belgium, and commenced digging on April 10, 1849. For more than twenty years, men of science worked at the site drilling with diamond-pointed instruments and taking measurements of all kinds. They learned about magnetic forces and the make-up of the Earth’s crust. Then, one fateful November night in 1872 the project went up in flames! In the wee hours of the morning, men at the site heard a series of explosions. Waves of heat, thunderous sounds and ash erupted throughout the region. Soon, molten lava sprung from the shaft and destroyed everything in its wake.
The devastating results of this search for knowledge is almost hard to believe. In fact, I hope you didn't . . .
In truth, we did come across this bizarre article mentioning Joseph Henry. However, it turns out that this and several others like it are the collective writings of William Henry Rhodes, or “Caxton.” Rhodes, a lawyer by trade, wrote a series of science fiction hoaxes that were published in newspapers around the country. He first published a hoax piece, The Case of Summerfield, in 1871 in The Sacramento Union. This piece was written as a report on a man who threatened to set the world’s oceans on fire using chemicals unless he was paid one million dollars. For a few days people were in a state of panic until The Sacramento Reporter unveiled the story as a hoax and, for the most part, people were amused by the prank.
Rhodes continued to write and in 1872 produced the The Earth’s Hot Center. This time the hoax was presented as extracts from a report written by John Flannagan, United States Consul at Bruges, to the United States Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish. It told the harrowing tale of scientists going too far and creating a volcano in the middle of Belgium. Although parts of the story may seem fantastical today, Rhodes’ use of prominent names such as Henry, Fish, and Roderick Murchison, a noted Scottish geologist; organizations like the Smithsonian; and his understanding of the scientific theories prevalant at the time helped create a masterful story that initially hoodwinked his readership until the deception was revealed. Secretary Joseph Henry was quite a serious fellow, and we don’t know his reaction, but we hope he enjoyed this bit of notoriety.
P.S. The image of the “excavation site” is actually an image of the Parícutin volcano in Mexico in 1943 taken by Smithsonian curator of minerals William Foshag. The image of Henry . . . well, that is actually him.
- Caxton's Book: A Collection of Essays, Poems, Tales and Sketches, William Henry Rhodes, ed. Daniel O’Connell, (A. L. Bancroft and Company: San Francisco, CA) 1876.
- Caxton's Book: A Collection of Essays, Poems, Tales and Sketches, William Henry Rhodes, Introduction by Sam Moskowitz (Hyperion Press: Westpore, CT) 1974.
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