Western North Carolina’s seeming remoteness from the east coast, and particularly from the large cities of the Northeast, is sometimes seen as a plus. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, one of the major repositories of the artistic treasures of our nation, opened its doors on March 17, 1941, only nine short months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The directors of the museum were worried from the beginning of what the Axis powers might do to these national treasures if they gained a foothold on US soil. David Finley, director recalled:
“I went to Senator and Mrs. Peter Gerry, who had been friends of mine for many yeas. I asked, if America should become involved in the war, would they be willing for me to take our most important paintings and sculptures to Biltmore House, in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. I had been there occasionally when Mrs. Gerry was Mrs. George Vanderbilt and she and her daughter lived at Biltmore House… They said there was a large vacant room in Biltmore House, where we could store everything as their guests. John Walker, Harry McBride, and I went to Biltmore to get everything in readiness. So when the attack was made on Pearl Harbor, we were prepared; and on New Year’s Day 1942, we moved out all of our most important works of art.
We engaged an express car, which was attached to the Southern Railway train to Asheville; and into that car we put the metal vans, which were taken out next morning at Biltmore Station and loaded on trucks to carry them to the Biltmore House. It was a long climb through the park, along winding roads, and up hills covered with ice. The trucks swayed from side to side and in my imagination I could see Raphael’s Alba Madonna and all the rest crashing on the road. But we arrived safely; and at Biltmore everything remained in perfect condition until the war ended.” – Excerpted from A Standard of Excellence, by David Finley, 1973, Smithsonian Institution Press
Local historian, Lou Harshaw, a college student at the time, recalls seeing the boxes on her visits to the Biltmore House:
“These big, heavy crates were stacked almost to the ceiling with a little tiny walkway in between. You had to almost turn sideways to get through. They had all the windows blocked off. Though it was not important to me at the time, years later I understood the significance. They were the National Gallery pictures, stored there in case of bombing.” Evacuation of the artwork from the National Gallery of Art to the Biltmore House. Photographs courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC