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Awards & Honors: 2009 National Humanities Medalist

Albert H. Small

Philanthropist Albert Small caught the collecting bug early on. He recalls his boyhood acquisitions of cigar bands and milk bottle tops, but it wasn’t until leaving the Navy after World War II and spending some time haunting bookstores in New York City that he stumbled across the volume that would turn him into the type of collector he’s been for over half a century. There, in a book stall, in sophisticated, upscale Manhattan, the young man from the sleepy town on the Potomac that was still Washington, D.C., was surprised to find a manuscript book on his hometown. It showcased two hundred and fifty milestones placed at intervals around the perimeter of the nation’s capital. Small found the author’s project to locate every milestone, and photograph and describe each stone’s immediate surroundings, something very close to his heart.

That physical connection between books and history has stoked his interest all these years. ”I guess I’m old fashioned in that way,” he says. “I like to go to the bookshelf and get a book in my hand and look at it and be able to show it to somebody—something I don’t feel I can do with a CD-ROM or a DVD.”

Small’s solid fifty-year track record as a residential and commercial real estate developer would be enough of an accomplishment for most. Yet his keen interest in manuscript and rare book collecting, his unflagging support of cultural institutions, and his ongoing passion for philanthropy have set him apart from the usual Beltway businessman. His towering presence in the cultural world of the national capital region is the result of his commitment to generously share his belief that books and the humanities can enrich the spirit.

Set foot sometime in Small’s Southern Engineering Corporation office in Bethesda, Maryland—he welcomes visitors to come in groups to enjoy his collection—and you’ll see what a methodical fifty-plus-year career in collecting can add up to: Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of framed rare engravings of Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and the Chesapeake cover the walls of the corridors, conference rooms, and employees’ offices. “I leave each framed print just enough space around for a little bit of elbow room,” he confides, as his practiced eye sweeps over a collection that includes an extremely rare map of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter.

But Small’s collection reaches far beyond the walls of his corporate headquarters. In 2004, the University of Virginia Library put the finishing touches on a special collections library funded by Small and his wife, Shirley, which now bears their name. In addition to its twelve million manuscripts, three hundred thousand rare books, and four thousand maps, it houses a permanent display of Small’s collection of autographed letters of all fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as one of the few remaining John Dunlap printings of the Declaration.

It’s important to Small that the library has supplemented the collection with likenesses of all the signers and has included as part of the exhibit a twelve-minute film emphasizing individual stories and their historical context. “They were all British subjects when they signed. They were committing an act of treason.” The impact for visitors, Small feels, comes from an exhibit’s ability to tell the story of signers such as Caesar Rodney, a delegate to the Continental Congress from Delaware, who wrote to his brother of “riding through thunder and rain … to give my voice in the matter of independence.”

Small’s generosity is deceptively casual at times. There’s the story of an extremely rare J. Benford watercolor of the White House done in 1801. Small found out it would be coming to auction and that there was one other bidder. It turned out the White House was the other interested party. Small picked up the phone and said that if they wouldn’t bid, he’d purchase it and give it to them later. After enjoying it in his own collection for a couple of years, he made good on the promise. It now hangs in the White House, but Small is not sure where. “I think they’ve got it upstairs somewhere,” he chuckles.

Even with his professional responsibilities at Southern Engineering—at eighty-four he continues as president—and his collecting—he studies catalogs daily to keep abreast of what’s coming to auction—he still finds time to serve on the boards of many cultural institutions, including the National Symphony Orchestra, the Foundation for the National Archives, and the Tudor Place Foundation. Additionally, Small is a member of the James Madison Council of the Library of Congress and serves on the Life Guard of Mount Vernon.

In spite of Small’s eclectic academic training—a degree from the University of Virginia in chemical engineering, courses in law at George Washington University, and graduate work in business at American University—those who know him well are never surprised by his abiding and sustaining commitment to the humanities. On a trip to England a few years ago with Librarian of Congress James Billington and historian David McCullough, Small was very impressed with a virtual page turner they saw at the British Library. The device enabled viewers to see all the leaves in a tome without physically handling, and damaging, the fragile pages. Shortly after his return, Small began talking to staff at the Library of Congress and the Folger Shakespeare Library about doing something similar. Thanks in part to a gift from Small, the Folger now has a First Folio of Romeo and Juliet on view using this virtual, page-turning technology, providing a richer experience for visitors who wish to examine the folio as well as the front matter and supplemental information on seventeenth-century typography and spelling.

Is there anything left he’d like to do as a collector? “I’m trying to find a venue for this collection,” he says of the documents and prints gracing the walls of Southern Engineering. But there is one other little thing, too. Small is among the few who have multiple copies of eighteenth-century landscape gardener Humphry Repton’s highly coveted Red Books, each a one-of-a-kind volume bound in red with sketched overlays Repton used to help clients visualize how his designs would transform their landscapes. Small has three. A certain well-heeled collector in Virginia has four. Another has two. One time a dealer from England called, Small says, and told him that another Red Book was coming to auction. This late in a storied collecting career, when thoughts of finding future homes for the treasures he has already amassed are taking more of his time, Small still thinks of that dealer. “He said, ’You wouldn’t want to pay that much,’” remembers Small, who then adds, barely audibly, perhaps thinking of the pleasure he’d have in one day handing the Repton original to someone else, “but I would.”

By Steve Moyer
Steve Moyer is the associate editor for HUMANITIES.