On March 17, 1941, the National Gallery of Art opened its doors in Washington D.C.; two days later, one of the worst bombings of World War II struck the heart of London. America was not yet at war—but it was inevitable.
Impending war and its ruinous effects lay heavy on the heart of the National Gallery’s first director David Finley. With our allies at war, their capitals ravaged by bombings and pillaging, it was all too easy for Finley to imagine his own city similarly spoiled. Reports of ransacking and looting reached his uneasy ears; the Nazi party was methodically plundering the caches of fine art across Europe. Finley’s ultimate fear was that his newly-minted museum would suffer the same fate. Or, even worse, insensate bombings of the capital would strike the National Gallery, destroying the masterpieces forever.
Finley began plotting and contriving safety nets for the nation’s most valuable works of art, works like Gilbert Stuart’s oil painting of George Washington, Titian’s Venus with a Mirror, Raphael’s Portrait of Bindo Altoriti, and Rembrandt’s self-portraits. He knew he wanted a safe location far removed from the perils of the capital and the prying eyes of the public. Somewhere innocuous enough to escape the threat of bombings, but bulwarked to protect these invaluable arts under the most unimaginable circumstances. The answer, he soon realized, was with his lifelong friend Edith Vanderbilt.
Edith, he knew, was the proprietor of her late husband’s massive estate, thousands of acres nestled in the secluded hills of North Carolina. An imposing palace of brick and steel cased in limestone, it was practically fireproof and impenetrable. Its remote, mountainous location also made it unlikely to fall in the path of invaders. Plus, Finley knew his friend to be a lifelong lover of art; after all, she’d grown up in the cavernous rooms of Biltmore surrounded by priceless artwork. She’d spent her childhood eyeing sixteenth century Finnish tapestries over breakfast and glancing up from books to ponder the ceiling in her father’s library, which was magnificently decked in a mural imported from the Pisani Palace in Italy. Biltmore was already a monumental fortress for the works of Renoir, Monet, and John Singer Sargent—why not add a few more priceless works to the list?
When Finley approached Edith about storing the cherished pieces from the National Gallery at her home, she immediately acquiesced. In fact, she even had the perfect room in mind. Biltmore had been open to the public for years (Edith herself no longer resided at the estate), so they needed a room removed from tours, a clandestine cell to secret away a couple dozen priceless works of art. The music room of the estate was the perfect solution.
With unadorned brick walls surrounding unfinished pine flooring, the unpolished music room was already intentionally avoided on the traditional tour of stately and imposing chambers. Finley’s team set to work securing the music room; they installed steel-vaulted doors and ensconced steel bars over the windows, carefully concealing their operations from the probing eyes of visitors. The fortified steel doors were hidden behind tapestries; visitors would never know what treasures lay behind those delicate folds.
For six months Finley’s fortress lay unused, a secret bastion in the midst of a tourist attraction. But as the year came to a close, so did America’s era of peace. Three weeks after Pearl Harbor, seven months after his arrangements were painstakingly prepared, Finley implemented his ultimate plan.
Sixty-two paintings and seventeen sculptures from the National Gallery of Art were delicately wrapped and meticulously crated, loaded onto boxcars and carried South, over peaks and into the valleys of Appalachia. Finley’s precious possessions arrived in Asheville in January of 1942 in the middle of a snowstorm. The crates were furtively and gently transferred onto trucks, which began the final slippery and icy jaunt across narrow and winding roads. Miraculously, every piece of art arrived unscathed. The priceless pieces were sneaked behind locked steel doors and unassuming tapestries under cover of darkness.
The National Gallery employed sentries for the art, nonstop security in the form of armed and uniformed guards. Despite the conspicuous security detail, tourists never suspected anything, instead assuming the security was a normality at Biltmore. Visitors continued to frequent the estate until 1943, when war rationing forced Biltmore to close its doors—but they never knew of the true treasures they passed. Some of the nation’s most precious belongings were safe in the confines of Vanderbilt’s estate.
In 1944, as Finley’s worst fears began to wane, the National Gallery made the decision to bring their art home. Unlike the art’s journey to Biltmore, which had been performed under the most secret of circumstances, its path back to Washington was intentionally well-documented. The National Gallery invited photographers to chronicle the outset of the voyage, as the crated and boxed works of art were once again loaded onto trucks to begin the perilous trip back through the mountains. The photographs and the return of the artwork to DC would serve as symbolic attestations of victory, even as the nation was on the brink of true wartime triumph.
SEE MORE “BILTMORE’S WARTIME ART FORTRESS” PHOTOS HERE