Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Drawing Parallels

The Biltmore Estate in nearby Asheville has enjoyed a lot of publicity with its parallels to the successful television show Downton Abbey.  The wealthy Vanderbilts were somewhat similar to the Crawleys of Downton.  After each episode of Downton, the Asheville newspaper runs an article called "Biltmore Abbey" which emphasizes the similarities between life at Downton and life at the Biltmore.

The coming of the movie "Monuments Men" has further created interest in the Biltmore Estate.  The movie involves the stories of the men who helped save European art during World War II.  (It's quite an interesting book.)  Regular visitors know that some of the greatest artworks in America were stored in the music room at the Biltmore mansion during World War II.

The curator of the National Gallery of Art was a personal friend of Edith Vanderbilt and had stayed at the Biltmore House in the 1920s.  He was very worried about the safety of the art in Washington, DC.  Recalling that Asheville was a rather isolated mountain town and that the Biltmore House was as fireproof as a structure could be, he contacted Edith about storing some of the most valuable art at the Biltmore House during the war.

The Biltmore House in early spring
(Photo by me)

 More than sixty paintings were transported quietly to the Biltmore House.  The works included some of the most famous art held at the National Gallery, including the renowned portrait of George Washington used on one-dollar bills.  Seventeen sculptures were also transported.

Doors to the music room at the Biltmore House were replaced with steel ones.  Steel bars and heavy curtains covered the windows.  And the crated art was stored there in the music room.

The music room as it appears today.
(AP Photograph)

Very few people knew about the location of the art work.  The house was not open to the public at that time.  The artwork arrived very quietly on trains and then trucks.  There was no Internet, no cell phones, no reason for anyone to believe the trucks were anything other than routine deliveries to the estate.

The art was further protected by armed guards, twenty-four hours per day.  The art remained hidden away at the Biltmore Estate until 1944, when the risk of an attack in Washington was considered unlikely.  It was transported back to Washington and the National Gallery of Art.

 Removing the art from the Biltmore Estate in 1944
(AP Photograph)

 Those of us who visit the Biltmore Estate often have learned so many interesting things about the life and times of George and Edith Vanderbilt.  The "behind the scenes" tours are enriching and absolutely fascinating.

 Trucks lined up to receive and transport the art back to the trains.
(AP Photograph)

Although the art came in silently it apparently went out in a loud and joyous manner.  Coming to the Biltmore Estate unescorted, the art left in a flurry of activity.  Apparently the trucks were escorted to the trains by motorcycle police with sirens blaring.  The city was proud to be yet another part of the war effort.

What a fun thing history is.


Carolina Linthead said...

Thanks for telling me something I did not know about WWII! When we lived in Weaverville, we knew a man who was on the maintenance staff at the estate. I have greatly enjoyed your posts about your visits there. History IS fun! It is my life :-)

Beatrice P. Boyd said...

We plan to visit the Biltmore Estate on a future road trip. And, now after reading this story, it is an even more interesting place than before.

Barbara Rogers said...

I'm going to link this post to my blog, Living in Black Mountain, because (shameful I know) I've never gone to the Biltmore so I can't share it like this. Thanks so much! Barb

KB said...

That's a very interesting story. Who'd have guessed that the Biltmore was part of protecting our art during WWII?

Vicki Lane said...

In spite of having visited the Biltmore Estate many times, somehow this bit of information escaped me. Thanks!

The Bug said...


Busy Bee Suz said...

That is fascinating….I had no idea. I DO love the history of the Biltmore and enjoy learning the nitty gritty of that family.