On a snowy December day in 1941, the world’s most famous art traveled by train to the Biltmore Estate
During World War II, the country fearfully awaited another attack on American soil. Reeling from the devastation of Pearl Harbor, government officials knew they had to take precautions in the event that the great world war brought its chaos and destruction to the United States once more. Asheville’s famed Biltmore Estate played a pivotal—and highly secret—role in harboring some of America’s most treasured art from falling into Nazi hands.
Priceless works by Raphael, Gilbert Stuart (painter of the iconic George Washington portrait), Rembrandt, Anthony van Dyck and more were transported from the National Gallery of Art in Washington and hidden away at the Biltmore Estate in the event of an enemy attack.
The mansion had plenty of space to hide the masterpieces. The home itself is over 175,000 square feet in size and originally sat on an astonishing 125,000 acres, nestled in the remote foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The Biltmore Estate was the perfect hiding place for art
David Finley, Director of the National Gallery of Art at the time, was concerned about inadequate security measures at the Gallery and spoke to his friends Edith and George Vanderbilt, who just happened to be the owners of the largest estate in America.
Having stayed at the Biltmore before, Finley remembered it as virtually fireproof, extremely remote in its mountain locale, and a place that the enemy would be unlikely to look for the art. Six months before the Pearl Harbor attack, Finley was busy preparing the music room for the secret mission he knew would come.
Darren Poupore, the chief curator at the estate, says of the covert mission, “It was all done in secret. They built in steel doors in the (music room) archways and steel bars on the windows, and then they put curtains over the doors to conceal them. Armed guards stood watch around the clock to protect the art.”
The mansion had been open to the public for years, hosting numerous tours each day of its opulent rooms and immaculate grounds. Finley worked with the Vanderbilts to construct the vaulted rooms so that visitors to the estate would be none the wiser to their presence. The Vanderbilts also instructed that the rooms contain extra fire extinguishers and alarms and heavy steel racks to hang the art safely.
The mansion’s important role during World War II is hinted at in the movie The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney and Matt Damon.
A harrowing journey to preserve a country’s culture
Just three weeks after the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor, 62 paintings and 17 sculptures made the journey by train from the National Gallery of Art to the walls of the previously unfinished music room at the Biltmore Estate.
It was snowing that day, and the journey through the hilly, icy roads that led to the Biltmore Estate was a nerve-wracking one for Finley. Poupore says, “He envisioned Raphael’s Alba Madonna falling and crashing.”
Thankfully, all of the priceless pieces arrived and remained intact until they were returned to the National Gallery in 1944. The country was surprised to learn of the highly-classified mission and delighted that the exquisite art survived World War II and was free once again, thanks to the promise of peace.