A Monument to Art Preservation
All Things Biltmore • 02/07/14
Written By Leeann Donnelly
The new movie “The Monuments Men” starring George Clooney, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, and Matt Damon, is based on a book of the same name by Robert Edsel. In his research and writing, Edsel captures the true tale of what has been called the greatest treasure hunt in history—an effort by a diverse group of art and museum experts to preserve European art masterpieces from theft and possible destruction during WWII.
You may be surprised to learn that Biltmore is mentioned in the book, and that George Vanderbilt’s magnificent estate played a special role in preserving our nation’s art treasures. In honor of this epic film that showcases the importance of art and the lengths to which nations and individuals will go to either steal or save it, we’d like to share our own part of the story.
In 1941, American leaders began to fear the possibility of an attack on Washington, DC. An air raid on a major U.S. city seemed likely. German submarines had been sited along the Atlantic Coast from Maine to North Carolina, bringing the war uncomfortably close to the American shore.
With that thought in mind, and with information from European sources about Hitler’s relentless efforts to seize and stockpile art—much of which was damaged or destroyed in the process—David Finley, the new director of the National Gallery of Art, contacted Biltmore to discuss the possibility of sending some of the nation’s most important art treasures there for safekeeping. Finley had visited Biltmore previously as a guest, and felt that Biltmore House was the perfect choice with its fireproof features and remote location. Edith Vanderbilt graciously agreed.
The unfinished Music Room on the first floor of Biltmore House was refitted with steel doors and other protective measures were taken, as outlined by the National Gallery of Art. On January 8, 1942, 62 paintings (including one of Gilbert Stuart’s iconic portraits of George Washington) and 17 sculptures arrived in Asheville under heavy guard. Biltmore had opened to the public in 1930 as a means of promoting tourism in Asheville. Guests now walked by the Music Room, unaware that some of the world’s greatest artwork was secretly hidden on the other side of the wall. The priceless artwork remained under 24-hour armed guard in America’s largest home until the fall of 1944, well after the danger of bombings or invasion had ended.
Biltmore closed to the public in 1943 due to gas rationing and a lack of manpower. It re-opened to guests on March 15, 1946. The Music Room would remain unfinished until June 1976, 30 years after its special role in the war effort. For more information on this and other historic events at Biltmore, we suggest reading Lady on the Hill by Howard Covington.
Note: the movie also features actor Hugh Bonneville who plays Lord Grantham in the PBS series Downton Abbey. The series is often compared to the way of life at Biltmore.