• U.S.

Grab That Leonardo!

3 minute read
Ted Gup/Washington

One of the most difficult challenges facing doomsday planners was deciding what cultural treasures should be saved. In 1950 the National Gallery of Art began construction of a $550,000 facility on the grounds of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Va., as a safe haven for works of art. Funded by a private trust, the windowless structure had storage areas for sculptures and screened partitions to protect paintings. Nearby was a three-bedroom cottage, fully furnished and complete with china, silverware and napkins — ready for the curator to move in and oversee the collection. Several former gallery executives recall that for years 2 1/2-ton trucks were kept in the gallery’s garage and driveways to transport the artworks in the event of a threatened attack. Each week security staff would start the trucks’ engines and make sure the gas tanks were full. By the early 1970s the plan had fallen into disfavor. “It lost its appeal when Lynchburg became more of a likely bombing target because of some industrial development,” recalls Charles Parkhurst, the National Gallery’s former assistant director.

Between 1979 and 1981, a government task force called the Cultural Heritage Preservation Group met to draw up priority lists. The Library of Congress’s “Top Treasures Inventory” includes a Gutenberg Bible, the Gettysburg Address and various papers of James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and George Mason. For the National Archives, which is seven blocks from the White House, the single most precious item would be the Declaration of Independence, followed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Though the National / Archives building has a 55-ton steel-and-concrete vault on the premises, the scenario calls for the evacuation of these and other documents, probably by helicopter, to an underground facility, if there is adequate warning time. A second group of papers would leave the capital by truck sometime after the so- called Freedom Documents of Group I had reached safety. Among the Group II materials: the log of the U.S.S. Monitor, medical records relating to President Lincoln’s assassination, the Japanese surrender documents and an 1804 map of Lewis and Clark’s trek across North America. The National Gallery had determined that it needed only six crates to hold the most important items. The first scheduled to be rescued: Leonardo da Vinci’s Ginevra de’ Benci. Other works include paintings by Jan Vermeer, a postcard-size depiction of St. George and the Dragon by Rogier van der Weyden, and Raphael’s Alba Madonna. Initially, plans called for the paintings to be taken to Mount Weather and hung on the walls there, arranged not by artist or period but by the size of the canvas. Curators were worried, however, that the site’s humidity would destroy the paintings. Victor Covey, then the gallery’s senior conservator, designed an ingenious lightweight metal container on wheels that one person could roll through the gallery and, within minutes, gather up the 18 or 19 most prized paintings, then slip them into designated slots. Inside the container was a tool chest with devices for removing the paintings from the walls swiftly, as well as flashlights and a waterproof signboard showing the location of each picture. When the lid was closed, the container would be sealed with gaskets. Bags of chemicals inside would stabilize the humidity, which was to be constantly monitored by external and internal devices. Once at Mount Weather, the container was to remain sealed until the danger had passed and it could be returned safely to Washington — assuming, of course, there was anything left of the city.

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