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Local Collector and Philanthropist Honored
June 10, 2011
Albert H. Small receives President’s Medal for dedication to preserving national history.
When Albert H. Small made his first purchase of a historical document—a manuscript describing the 40 milestones placed around the perimeter of Washington, D.C.—he awakened a lifelong passion for historical collecting. More than 50 years later, Mr. Small donated his unparalleled collection of items documenting D.C.’s history to GW, and was honored June 7 with the President’s Medal, the highest award the university president can bestow.
“Albert Small’s extraordinary contribution as a collector and preserver of our national heritage will educate countless generations of students, scholars and citizens about the history of our nation and of this great capital city,” said GW President Steven Knapp at the medal ceremony, which was held at 1957 E Street.
The Albert H. Small Washingtoniana Collection includes more than 660 maps, prints and other documents. In February, GW announced that Mr. Small had decided to donate the collection to the university. The collection will be exhibited in Woodhull House, a 165-year-old historic campus building, and in a yet-to-be-constructed adjacent museum building. An additional gift of $5 million from Mr. Small will support construction of the museum and renovation of Woodhull House.
“Receiving the George Washington University’s President’s Medal is a tremendous honor,” Mr. Small said. “I hope that my collections will offer today’s students and future generations the opportunity to study the history of this great country and its national treasures.”
Mr. Small, a third-generation Washingtonian, is co-founder and president of Southern Engineering Corporation, which has developed millions of square feet of office space, apartment communities and single-family homes in Washington. He has served on many civic and cultural boards, including those of the National Symphony Orchestra, the National Gallery of Art, the Foundation for the National Archives and the James Madison Council of the Library of Congress.
He became interested in historical collecting after serving in the Navy during World War II, and his Declaration of Independence Collection, considered the most comprehensive in the world, is now housed at the University of Virginia. Mr. Small also created the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, which displays rare and historically significant documents.
At the award ceremony in which Mr. Small received the President’s Medal, historian James Goode, Ph.D ’95, who has been Mr. Small’s longtime curator of the Washingtoniana Collection, discussed the significance of some of the most noteworthy items included. One of these items is a hand-drawn map made by a Prince George’s County surveyor in 1790 showing the land that would eventually make up the capital city. Only two of these maps were known to have been made, Dr. Goode said.
The collection also includes a March 1791 letter from Thomas Jefferson to Pierre L’Enfant, in which Jefferson asks L’Enfant to come to D.C. to work on the city’s layout, and instructs him to report back to Jefferson on his progress by letter on Wednesdays and Saturdays. “These documents are the foundation of the city,” Dr. Goode said. Mr. Small’s collection also includes the last known letter that George Washington wrote, only four days before his death in 1799.
Mr. Small’s collection also features many significant documents from the Civil War era. One item that is especially rare, Dr. Goode said, is a broadsheet poster advertising a reward for the capture of President Lincoln’s assassins. The poster was printed five days after Lincoln’s death and included photos of the suspects at the top. Souvenir hunters cut the photos out of most of the posters, making Mr. Small’s document especially noteworthy.
GW Trustee Robert Perry said that the university was privileged to receive Mr. Small’s donation. “This is the right collection, for the right institution, at the right time,” Mr. Perry said. “[Mr. Small’s] quest was to find a partner that would use his collection in the curriculum, through scholarship, research and publication. That’s how George Washington University became the caretaker of Albert’s collection. For future generations, we say thank you.”
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