MET II IN WORLD WAR II
By Richard Carreño Bio Posted: July 5, 2014
[WritersClearinghouse News Service]
For two years during World War II, from 1942 to 1944, the Metropolitan Museum of Art went to war -- in Philadelphia.
Thanks to the Monuments Men, a recent film and a book by the same title, the war-time Met is now best known for its one-time director James J. Rorimer, a principal in organizing the group of GIs who, in their role in hunting down Europe's art treasures stolen by the Nazis, became known in romantic vernacular as the 'Monuments Men.'
Less known is how another Met director, Francis Henry Taylor, Rorimer's predecessor and a former curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, worked quietly during the early war years to protect America's art patrimony.
And how, thanks to Taylor, a mansion in the contiguous northwest Philadelphia suburb of Springfield became an auxiliary venue of the venerable New York art institution. In secret.
How Whitemarsh Hall, the former mansion and three-hundred-acre estate of a fabulously wealthy Philadelphia banker, became the Met's war-time repository is also a tale that is almost buried in the sands of time and, more literally, in the ruins of what's left of Whitemarsh, demolished in 1980 to make way for a mid-market housing development. Part of that development, including the estate's entrance gates, a gatehouse, and other fragments and statuary, preserves the name of Edward T. Stotesbury, the Drexel banker who commissioned the renown Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer to build the place in 1921. Stotesbury died in 1938.
Today, the skeletal scene -- an incongruous architectual array of the old and exotic and the new and ordinary -- is simply eerie.
But even seventy years ago, to the casual observer, Whitemarsh might have seemed as an unlikely setting for an off-site museum.
In its day, the big house was flush with servants and opulent French antiques and artwork, installed by the great English art dealer, Lord Joseph Duveen; surrounded by gardens that were reminiscent of those designed by Louis XIV's landscaper André Le Nôtre. It was no surprise, then, that Whitemarsh got to be known, despite its neo-Georgian design, by its cheeky sobriquet, the 'American Versailles.'
In 1942, Taylor was looking at a stripped-down version of the palatial homestead, what had become the victim of the Stoteburys financial reversals during the Depression. What remained of the interior -- one-hundred-forty-seven rooms on six floors (three underground), with 100,000 square feet of floor space -- was almost like, in Taylor's view, a purpose-built museum. The existing mansion was fireproof (built in steel and concrete) and featured air conditioning, humidity controls and its own electrical system and water supply.
It was, in other words, almost a ready-made Met II.
For many today, protecting the museum's collection in a off-site location might seem like an over-reaction to a questionable threat. Could the German Luftwaffe really bomb New York? Would German commandos, landed by U-boat, attack cultural institutions?
Those threats, in historical hindsight today, appear remote, at best. But in the wake of the devastation at Pearl Harbor -- the Japanese bombed thousands of miles away from their homeland, after all -- New Yorkers weren't taking any chances.
And there was some real cause for concern. U-boats were sinking shipping of the eastern coast. At least one air raid was sounded over the city, scrambling two-hundred-eighty fighter planes. (It was a false alarm). And though mostly boastful bombast, some people were not fully dismissing threats by the Luftwaffe's head, Hermann Goering, to drop five-ton bombs on New York to 'stop somewhat the mouths of arrogant people over there.'
Taylor's first idea was remove the artwork to a former water main tunnel under the museum's Fifth Avenue site.
That plan was quickly rejected when it was determined that lingering moisture in the tunnel would be too harmful.
Rather, in January, just a month after Pearl Harbor, the Met announced that it had removed most of its major treasures to a country home 'a hundred miles inland.'
The concept wasn't original. The British, mired in the war since 1939, had safe-guarded many of the irreplaceable contents of the British Museum and other arts institutions in abandoned Underground stations in London and at country houses in Wales.
The Met's transfer, under a two-year lease, wasn't haphazard. In short order, about 15,000 to 20,000 priceless pieces, including mummies, tapestries, and about five hundred paintings, were ensconced at Whitemarsh.
Like all war-time secrets, Met II's whereabouts was shared on a need-to-know basis. But how hush-hush the move really was is open to debate. In fact, Met II expanded to include collections from the Brooklyn Museum, Cooper Union in New York, and from the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Even some private collectors got into the act.
By the time Whitemarsh was full up and the Nazis were on the run in 1944, one wag in the New York museum world, was referring to Met II as no longer as the American Versailles but as a 'monument hystérique.'
[What to know more. Contact Richard Carreño via PhiladelphiaJunto@yahoo.com or via Facebook.com/WritersClearinghouse].