"Monuments Men" Has Some National Park Service Connections
"Monuments Men," the just-released movie starring George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bill Murray as World War II military historians tasked with saving artworks and cultural treasures from the throes of war, has some National Park Service threads woven into it.
Among the actual team of historians who protected monuments, artwork and other cultural treasures from the destruction of World War II were former, and future, Park Service employees.
Denys P. “Peter” Myers, an architectural historian with the Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey, and Norman T. Newton, a landscape architect in what is now the Northeast Regional Office, were among the 350 men and women from 13 nations who volunteered for this dangerous service.
Officially known as the military’s Monument, Fine Arts and Archives Section, the Monuments Men were museum directors, curators, art scholars and educators, artists, architects and archivists whose mission was to save as much of the greatest cultural and artistic achievements of Europe as possible from the destructive threat of war.
“The preservation of places and objects that represent our nation’s culture and history is core to the mission of the National Park Service,” said Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. “We are proud that in a time of international crisis, men with the skills and expertise to preserve our nation’s cultural heritage answered the call to ensure that these treasures from other nations would not be lost.”
In all, the Monuments Men tracked, located, and ultimately returned more than 5 million artistic and cultural items stolen by Hitler and the Nazis, according to the Park Service.
"Their role in preserving cultural treasures was without precedent. In civilian life, many of these individuals played extraordinarily prominent roles with some of the greatest cultural and educational institutions in the United States," notes Park Service spokesman Mike Litterest.
Architectural historian Peter Myers served with the U.S. Army as a member of the Monument, Fine Arts and Archives Program from 1943 until 1946. During that time, he participated in the recovery of art stolen by the Nazis, and aided in the remarkable salvage of the frescoes by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo at the Residenz Palace in Würzburg, Germany.
In his post-war career, he worked for the National Park Service for 20 years, primarily with the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), a database of drawings, photographs and histories representing America’s architectural heritage. He contributed the written historical data to more than a dozen surveys during his career. Myers was also considered an authority on 19th-century gas lighting and authored Gas Lighting in America: A Pictorial Survey, 1815-1910 for the National Park Service in 1978.
Norman Newton served as an associate landscape architect for the National Park Service from 1933 to 1939. During this time he designed the master plan for the Statue of Liberty and Bedloe’s (today Liberty) Island, in which he called for the removal of old Army barracks and the creation of a formal design of lawns and walkways.
Newton’s objective of “a setting of appropriate well-ordered dignity” continued to dominate the development program even after his departure from the National Park Service in 1939, and his influence can be seen at the site to this day. Other projects Newton completed for the National Park Service included master plans for Saratoga National Historical Park and Salem Maritime National Historic Site.
During World War II, Newton spent nearly four years as a member of the Monument, Fine Arts and Archives program (1942-1946), noting damage to historic structures, damage or theft of works of art, the protection and rebuilding of structures, and the location and repatriation of works of art in Italy. He wrote a book titled about his experience as a Monument Man, entitled "War Damage to Monuments and Fine Arts of Italy."
After the war, Newton returned to Harvard University where he served as professor of landscape architecture and became a noted author on landscape design.