“The Best Laid Plans… Often Go Awry”: A Tale of Two Museums

In the spring of 1934, the construction of two new archaeological museums was completed in Greece, both under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) and by the same architect, W. Stuart Thompson. Thompson had designed the Gennadius Library a few years earlier. The dedication of the Corinth Museum was grand and attended by most significant officers of the Greek Government. There was no dedication for the Lesvos Museum. Of the two museums, the one in Corinth is still standing and functioning, while the other on the island of Mytilene (Lesvos) collapsed shortly after its erection.

The Archaeological Museum of Lesvos, 1934. From the ASCSA Archives (photo by Βασιλείου)

The Archaeological Museum of Lesvos, 1934. From the ASCSA Archives (photo by Βασιλείου).

The generous Mrs. W. H. Moore

In the first volume of the School’s History, Louis E. Lord devoted two long paragraphs to a description of the Corinth Museum, the construction of which was financed by Mrs. William H. Moore. Ada Small Moore had given $40,000 for the erection of the museum and $10,000 “for endowment to assist in its upkeep” (Lord 1947, p. 223). Edward Capps, the Chair of the School’s Managing Committee (1918-1939), and Richard (Dick) Stillwell, the Director of the ASCSA (1932-1935), had prepared for months for the opening ceremony on April 29th, 1934, which also marked transfer of ownership of the museum to the Greek Government.

From the opening ceremony of the Corinth Museum, April 29th, 1934. From the ASCSA Archives, Corinth Excavations

The opening ceremony of the Corinth Museum, April 29th, 1934. From the ASCSA Archives, Corinth Excavations.

The black-figure lekythos by

The black-figure lekythos by the Beldam Painter. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Corinth Excavations.

In the presence of Mrs. Moore, Prime Minister Panagis Tsaldaris received the building from W. Rodman Peabody, President of the Trustees of the School. The Greek State decorated Mrs. Moore with the Great Cross of the Savior, a rare honor to bestow upon a foreign woman (for a thorough biographical note on Ada Small Moore, see http://www.robertstrongwoodward.com/Scrapbook/AdaMoore.html). As a token of gratitude, the Greek Prime Minister also presented Mrs. Moore with a white-ground black figure lekythos by the Beldam Painter, which originally belonged to the collection of the National Technical University of Athens (Polytechneion). (The lekythos is at Yale University today.) “Corinth now has one of the most attractive of all the many museums in Greece,” Lord concluded.

Ada Small Moore (1858-1955), always referred to as Mrs. William H. Moore in the School’s histories, was a renowned art collector with a special interest in Asian art. She was also one of the first Americans to collect ancient glass. Through gifts and bequests, her rich collection was split among several American institutions, including Yale University, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Pierpont Morgan Library, and the Library of Congress. Moore became interested in the work of the American School because of Edward Capps. “What splendid news that Mrs. Moore has agreed to back the project of the new museum for Corinth!” exclaimed the director of the School Rhys Carpenter (1927-1932), after reading Capps’s letter of September 23, 1930. “You seem to have lost nothing in your old-time stride,” Carpenter continued, acknowledging Capps’s great talent for fundraising (ASCSA AdmRec, Box 318/2, folder 2).

The Archaeological Museum of Corinth in 1934. From ASCSA, Archives, Corinth Excavations

The Archaeological Museum of Corinth in 1934. From ASCSA, Archives, Corinth Excavations.

Hearing the good news about the Corinth Museum, Rhys Carpenter also thought of another place that desperately needed a museum to house its rich antiquities: the island of Lesvos.

“Is there not a section or faction of the International Education Board [IEB] which would be interested in my old suggestion that we salvage the wonderful antiquities of the island of Lesbos?” Carpenter wrote to Capps a few days later, on October 1st, 1930.

The IEB was one of the many philanthropic boards of the Rockefeller family and in May 1927 the RF had appropriated $500,000 to the School’s programs, with the expectation that the School would raise another 250,000. Of the $500,000, $133,000 was allotted to the construction of a Hostel, for which the School was obliged to raise another $66,000 (Capps to Edward Perry and LaRue Van Hook, July 29, 1927; AdmRec 311/4, folder 3). The Rockefeller Foundation, in its re-organization of 1928, took over the funding of humanistic studies from the other boards, including the IEB, and created a new Division for Humanities. Capps became the first director of the Division in 1929, while maintaining his chairmanship of the Managing Committee at the School. It is, therefore, surprising that he was not accused of having a conflict of interest, although we can guess why he resigned from that post a year later.

Capps claimed then that his new responsibilities at the RF did not leave him enough time for his work at the American School. In the official history of the RF, however, he was criticized for having followed an elitist and exclusive approach in funding only institutions and projects with strong connections to classical antiquity. His approach was old-fashioned and had no place in the RF’s new, post-1930, democratic and inclusive agenda. David H. Stevens, who succeeded Capps in the directorship of the Humanities Division, was highly critical of the funding priorities of his predecessors:

“How was this program a credit to us? In having a sense of magnitude. In what way a discredit? By buttressing scholasticism and antiquarianism in our universities” (Fosdick, pp. 239-240).

To return to the Lesvos Museum, Carpenter was afraid that, if the ASCSA did not take immediate action, it would be too late for the next generation of archaeologists to save the antiquities of the island. He proposed that a disused mosque (the “Tsinar Tsamesi”) be purchased and converted to a museum, as had already been done on the neighboring island of Chios. Carpenter thought that $10,000 would suffice for the project. With the approval of Konstantinos Kourouniotis (1872-1945), director of the Archaeological Service, Capps approached the RF (whether he was still director of the Division for Humanities is unclear), which approved the grant in May 1931.

From the opening ceremony of the Corinth Museum in April 1934. The gray-hair man standing alone is Konstantinos Kourouniotis. From the ASCSA Archives, Corinth Excavations.

From the opening ceremony of the Corinth Museum in April 1934. The gray-hair man standing alone in the middle is Konstantinos Kourouniotis. From the ASCSA Archives, Corinth Excavations.

While Capps was certainly still director of the Division, the RF, under his influence, had the year before (1930) granted $10,000 in support Kourouniotis’s excavations at Eleusis. Niki Sakka has written extensively about the relationship between the RF’s funding of the Eleusis excavations and Capps’s efforts to secure the concession for the Athenian Agora excavations (Sakka 2008). I am not sure, however, that the ASCSA initiative to provide for a museum on Lesvos had anything to do with the School’s (or Capps’s) efforts to please Kourouniotis, “the officer of the Greek Government on whom devolve all the work and many of the decisions in connection with the projected American excavations of the Athenian Agora” (in Capps’s own words; see Sakka 2008, p. 118, n. 77). On the other hand, as part of his grand scheme to excavate the Agora of Athens, Capps would have done anything to please Venizelos and make the School appear generous in the eyes of the Greek government.

(On an aspect of Kourouniotis’s life, his interest in parapsychology, of which I was unaware, my readers may be interested in a post by Kostis Kourelis at: http://kourelis.blogspot.gr/2009/01/tanagras-and-kourouniotes.html )

Too Many Cooks

But what seemed to be an easy project turned out to be an ordeal for Capps. By the time the RF approved the funding for the purchase of the mosque, it had been bought by others and demolished. In addition, hearing that the RF was interested in providing the island of Mytilene with an archaeological museum, the minister of Education, Georgios Papandreou (1888-1968), had put forward a revised and ambitious proposal for a bigger structure that would also house a library and a museum of Natural History. If the RF were to increase funding to $14,000 (about 1,500.000 drachmas), the city of Mytilene and the Greek government would each contribute 1,000.000 drachmas for the construction of the library and the enlarged museum.

This was all part of Papandreou’s larger plan to provide each major Greek city not just with an archaeological museum but with a “City Museum” (Μουσείο Πόλεως). The goal of these new museums was to strengthen the cultural life of provincial cities by giving them places that could host an array of activities, such as academic and art lectures, concerts, or reading (see Sakka 2002 for a thorough analysis of Papandreou’s plan for city museums).

This rare blueprint of 1932 shows the original plan to include a library in the Lesvos museum

This rare blueprint of 1932 shows that Thompson had originally drawn plans both for a museum (upper level) and a library (lower level) on Lesvos. From the ASCSA Archives. Click to enlarge.

The new scheme seemed complicated (not to say doomed) from the start. By the RF made its new appropriation of $14,000 available in May 1932, the Greek government of Eleftherios Venizelos had declared bankruptcy, and the prime minister himself had then submitted his resignation. Papandreou was no longer Minister of Education, and, at the ASCSA, a new director, Richard Stillwell, had succeeded Rhys Carpenter. Only Capps and Kourouniotis were part of the old team.

ASCSA Director Richard (Dick) Stillwell and architect W. Stuart Thompson at the opening ceremony of the Corinth Museum, 1934. From the ASCSA Archives, Corinth Excavations.

ASCSA Director Richard (Dick) Stillwell and architect W. Stuart Thompson at the opening ceremony of the Corinth Museum, 1934. From the ASCSA Archives, Corinth Excavations.

On October 4, 1932, Capps tried, in a six page, single-spaced letter, to explain the project to Stillwell. He was worried that the (new) Greek government would not agree to the conditions on which the RF had made its gift, especially that “the building as designed shall be finished completely within the amount of the grant, plus the Greek contributions… with no cheapening on the part of the contractors.” Capps insisted on the issue of the contributions: “It will be necessary for the Greeks not only to say that they have the drs. 2,000.000 available, subject to draft, but actually to have the money deposited in the Bank before we begin.” “It must never happen that the only funds available are American or we should be in a hole.” The ASCSA having been the recipient of another large grant from the RF to conduct the Agora excavations did not want to risk its relationship with the Foundation; “we have a standing with them that we must maintain at all hazards” Capps further stated.

“Your long and detailed letter concerning the Museum at Lesbos was somewhat in the nature of finding a skeleton in the closet of a house that had been left by the last tenant,” responded a frustrated Stillwell.

In a follow-up letter a week later, Capps emphasized to Stillwell that the success of the Lesvos project depended on Kourouniotis administering the flow of the Greek funds. It did not take long for Capps’ fears to come true. “There does not seem to be any money available at the present time from the Mitylene contingent, and the Ministry of Education has available only drs. 500,000… the financial situation here is desperate; all the attention of the various political chiefs is now directed toward re-establishing some sort of sound economic basis… and in short, very little money is likely to be forthcoming for any needs that are not of the most pressing nature” Stillwell reported gloomily in late November 1932.


With only one quarter of the promised Greek funds now likely to be delivered, Capps, in consultation with the RF, decided to scale down the building by omitting the library: “We might as well recognize the hard fact that the Government has no money and proceed to attain our original object, since we can do it with the $14,000” (Capps to Stillwell, Dec. 19, 1932). He asked Stuart Thompson to draw new plans for a smaller building which “would allow for possible future extensions, and “to make general allowances for contingencies” in the budget. “We don’t want the building to be turned over, and remain forever, an empty shell.”

By March 1933, Thompson had already surveyed and staked out the site that the Mayor of Mytilene had chosen for the museum. The School was debating whether to stock up drachmas or not, since not only the Greek currency was rapidly losing its value against the dollar but also “the dollar had in this country, as in every other, no more value than a scrap of paper” (Stillwell to Capps, March 22, 1933). If they thought that the financial situation appeared somewhat “favorable” in terms of cost, all else in Greece looked bleak. Even Kourouniotis, whom the School trusted to represent the Greek side, seemed “slightly nervous lest he find his desk occupied some morning by a stranger” (Stillwell to Capps, March 22, 1933).

The Archaeological Museum of Lesvos in 1934. Back side. From the ASCSA Archives (photo by Βασιλείου).

The Archaeological Museum of Lesvos, 1934. Back side. From the ASCSA Archives (photo by Βασιλείου).

To the Court

Construction finally began in September of 1933, but in late October an urgent telegram reached Stillwell from Howard Simpkin, the site engineer, announcing that a committee from the Ministry of Education was about to arrive to decide on the location of the museum! “Work is well advanced. Exterior walls practically up to first floor level. Impossible to change location” wrote the frustrated engineer who was now working under police protection (telegram October 25, 1933). A group of citizens politically opposed to the mayor had complained that the new museum would obstruct the view to the sea from the Kiosk Plateia, an important recreational area for the citizens of the island. Claiming that the School was building in an area that had been illegally approved by the mayor, the citizens took the issue to the Council of the State. In the absence of Anastasios Adossidis, the School’s legendary business manager, who was recovering from respiratory problems in Arcadia, lawyer Aristeidis Kyriakidis handled the case successfully and discreetly, and without delaying construction (Stillwell to Capps, March 3rd, 1934).

The Greek government, however, claiming bureaucratic impediments, delayed its payments after having paid only one quarter of the obligated sum.

“The difficulty about the Greek payments is briefly this; the original sum of 500,000 drachs was handed over to the former prefect of Mytilene, and on his retiring, was turned back by him to the Treasury. Hence the sum was absorbed, and the only way of getting it back again is to have it voted once more in this year’s budget, which will happen along in May. The Ministry of Education has been unable to commit itself, naturally, and their goodwill was shown by the fact that they paid the first appropriation out of funds that they had on hand from Museum Entrance Receipts. At present they have no other money available, and hence our second requisition has gone unanswered” (Stillwell to Capps, March 3rd, 1934). Despite all, Thompson and Simpkin managed to complete the building by April 1934.

The Archaeological Museum of Lesvos, 1934. From the ASCSA Archives (photo by Βασιλείου)

The Archaeological Museum of Lesvos with the Kiosk in front, 1934.  From the ASCSA Archives (photo by Βασιλείου).

On May 15th, Stillwell wrote to George Oikonomos, the new director of the Archaeological Service that he and the American Minister Lincoln MacVeagh were planning to sail to Mytilene on May 22nd in order “to complete the transfer of the New Museum, so far as it has been erected by American Funds, to the Archaeological Authorities”. The planned transfer, however, never took place because the Greek government was not able to pay the remaining 250,000 drachmas to the ASCSA. Writing to Ambassador MacVeagh in order to ask him to cancel his trip to Mytilene, Stillwell explained that it would have seemed unwise “to have any kind of celebration in connection with opening the Museum until the books are settled up… that there can be no question of a ceremony unless the money has been paid over by the Greek Authorities” (Stillwell to MacVeagh, May 18th 1934).


Was there finally a formal transfer and dedication of the Lesvos Museum? Did the Greek State pay to the School the second installment of its agreed contribution? There are no documents in the “Lesvos Museum” folder in the ASCSA Archives that concern either issues. I have searched through Stillwell’s other correspondence, the minutes of the Managing Committee meetings, and the Annual Reports of the School, but have not been able to find any relevant document. With Stillwell’s departure for a two-month summer vacation in America, the Lesvos Museum became a non-issue.

The Archaeological Museim of Lesvos. Interior with Byzantine mosaic from Eressos embedded on the floor, 1934. From the ASCSA Archives (photo by )

The Archaeological Museum of Lesvos, 1934. Interior view with a Byzantine mosaic from Eressos embedded on the floor. From the ASCSA Archives (photo by Βασιλείου). Click to enlarge.

(The next time I am in New York I should look into the files of the Rockefeller Foundation to see if the School submitted a final report and, if so, how Capps justified the missing contributions from the Greek state.)

We have a Greek expression for things suddenly disappearing from one’s attention or care: σαν να το κατάπιε η γη (“as if the earth swallowed it up”). The expression is particularly relevant in the case of the Lesvos Museum, since, within a couple of years, the soil below the Museum began to settle. “The earth on which the building rests becomes very soft when wet and is unable to support the weight of the building,” wrote Colonel Roy W. Gausmann to Capps on September 15, 1936. Gausmann is known to us from Betsey Robinson’s paper on “Hydraulic Euergetism,” as one of the designing engineers of the Marathon Dam and, until 1941, as the general manager of EEY (the Greek Water Company). In 1936, Gausmann had recommended that they keep the earth dry, and “one of the means of doing this was to keep the leaders and their connection with the drain always in good condition.” In the folder there is a detailed assessment of the soil conditions by one of Gausmann’s assistants. The problem must not have been fixed because a year later Capps was writing to Stuart Thompson in New York who replied “I cannot tell from the letters and reports. There still seems to be settlement of the foundations but what the cause is isn’t clear… I would very much like to personally see it but unfortunately Mytelene (sic) is a great distance away” (September 29, 1937). In May 1938, Gaussman would report from Mytilene “…the Museum is cracked again and while the crack is not serious, the reason for the crack is extremely serious” (Gausmann to Capps, May 2, 1938). By “serious,” Gausmann referred not only to the actual problem of the foundations of the building settling, but also to the indifference of the caretaker, who “cannot use a pick and shovel but must use a pen whenever anything happens” to report the damage to the Ministry. “The building is doomed to destruction,” predicted Gausmann.

The Archaeological Museum of Lesvos, 1934. Interior view. Check the monogram (ΜΛ) on the back of the wooden chair. From the ASCSA Archives. Click to enlarge.

The Archaeological Museum of Lesvos, 1934. Interior view. Check out the monogram (ΜΛ) on the back of the wooden chair. From the ASCSA Archives. Click to enlarge.

Its destruction is not reported in the ASCSA’s official history. The museum must have been standing when Louis Lord’s History was published in 1947 because he describes it, and in doing that, he sings the praises of Capps:

“It is a charming building, small but adequate to the needs of the island. It houses a unique collection of Aeolic architectural fragments. And while this museum is in no way connected with the School, its gift to the Greek Government was due to the Chairman of the Managing Committee. It is a continuing source of cordial relations between Greek and American archaeologists” Lord wrote (pp. 223-224).

It is conspicuously missing, however, from a series of snapshots that Homer and Dorothy Thompson took in 1954 while on Lesvos. One would think that the Thompsons would have photographed the “American Museum,” for the construction of which many people they knew had worked; most likely it had already been demolished or was no longer operational.

Since 1995 the island of Lesvos has had a new archaeological museum in the same plateia (the Kiosk Plateia) where the old museum of 1934 once stood. But when the inhabitants and the guides refer to the “old museum,” they mean the Bournazos mansion, which was built in 1912 and was later used (presumably after the American building was declared derelict) to house the antiquities of the island. In my early years as Archivist of the School I remember that two engineers who were involved in the construction of the new archaeological museum visited the School’s Archives. They had heard about the American building but did not know its exact location or its appearance.

Searching the collections of the Gennadius Library I was glad to find a picture of the museum in a recent publication about the history of Mytilene from 1860-1960 (Anagnostou 2013, p. 1980) However, if one searches the internet, there is no mention of it. Σαν να το κατάπιε η γη…

Isabel Florence Thompson, 1920-1925. Photo: Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan 2012.

Isabel Florence Thompson, 1920-1925. Photo: Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan 2012. Click to enlarge.

An Addendum on W. Stuart Thompson
Concerning the prolific and fascinating life of architect Stuart Thompson (1890-1968), a man who managed to maintain a career on both sides of the Atlantic, by building skyscrapers in America and schools, libraries, and museums in Greece, Turkey, and Albania, I refer my readers to an extensive post by Kostis Kourelis in his blog, “Corinth Architects 06: W. Stuart Thompson.” http://kourelis.blogspot.gr/2013/03/corinth-architects-06-w-stuart-thompson.html

Perhaps one reason that Thompson kept coming back again and again to Greece, even as an old man, was that he had left a part of him in Greece in 1925. In the Protestant corner of the First Cemetery in Athens, there is a grave stele inscribed: Florence Thompson…


Anagnostou, S. 2013. Η παλιά Μυτιλήνη: φωτογραφική αναδρομή 1860-1960. Mytilene.

Fosdick, R.B. 1989. The Story of the Rockefeller Foundation, with a new introduction by S.C. Wheatley, New Brunswick.

Lord, E. L. 1947. A History of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1882-1942: An Intercollegiate Project, Cambridge, Mass.

Robinson, B. A. 2013. “Hydraulic Euergetism: American Archaeology and Waterworks in Early-20th-Century Greece,” in Philhellenism, Philanthropy, or Political Convenience? American Archaeology in Greece, ed. J. L. Davis and N. Vogeikoff-Brogan, Hesperia (special issue) 82:1, Princeton, pp. 101-130.

Sakka, N. 2002. “Αρχαιολογικές δραστηριότητες στην Ελλάδα (1928-1940): Πολιτικές και ιδεολογικές διαστάσεις” (diss. Univ. of Crete, Rethymnon).

Sakka, N. 2008. “The Excavation of the Ancient Agora of Athens: The Politics of Commissioning and Managing the Project,” in A Singular Antiquity. Archaeology and Hellenic Identity in 20th century Greece, ed. D. Damaskos and D. Plantzos, Athens, pp. 111-124.

7 Comments on ““The Best Laid Plans… Often Go Awry”: A Tale of Two Museums”

  1. Maria Liston says:

    Thank you! This is another fascinating story, which sheds light on several nagging questions–such as “Why is there no archaeological museum in Mytilene?”
    I am still curious, however, as to why the Corinth museum was designed to look like a monastery.

    • There is an archaeological museum in Mytilene. It was built in 1995. I mention it towards the end. As for the Corinth Museum, the person who knows a lot about its style is Kostis Kourelis. Follow my links to his blog.

  2. Ioulia Tzonou-Herbst says:

    Beautiful, Natalia, thank you!

  3. Daphne Papadopoulou says:

    Just discovered your blog and read this entry first. What a fascinating story! Thanks for bringing it to our attention. Will keep reading it from now on.

  4. […] Among the 104 dignitaries who came from the U.S. we should mention: Dr. Henry S. Pritchett and Mrs. Pritchett of the Carnegie Corporation, the organization that had funded the construction of the Library [2]; seven members of the School’s Board of Trustees, including the President of the Board (1911-1928), Judge William Caleb Loring; the Vice-President, Frederick P. Fish (who was also representing M.I.T.); the Secretary (1920-1949), A. Winsor Weld (1869-1956), who had first come to Greece with the American Red Cross in 1918; and the Treasurer (1914-1933), Allen Curtis, who was also a member of the Building Committee supervising the construction of the Gennadius Library. John Van Pelt and W. Stuart Thompson, the architects who had designed and constructed the building, were also present of course. (On Weld’s involvement with the Greek Commission of the American Red Cross, see “Athens 1918: “In Every Way a Much More Attractive City than Rome”; and  about W. Stuart Thompson’s career in Greece, see also “’The Best Laid Plans… Often Go Awry’: A Tale of Two Museums”.) […]

  5. […]  Founded by American Protestant missionaries, the school’s central building was designed by W. Stuart Thompson, architect of the Gennadius Library and long a friend of the Hills and the […]

  6. […] original guidelines from the architects of the building, John Van Pelt and W. Stuart Thompson, limited the length of the inscription to twenty letters; in addition, the architects insisted on […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.