Minnesota's 'Monuments' man

  • Article by: RICK NELSON  , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 8, 2014 - 7:50 AM

Saving art treasures from the ravages of World War II was the work of the “Monuments Men,” including a University of Minnesota architecture professor.

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This watercolor by Walter Huchthausen has been with a cousin since the 1940s.

Fisher is dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design. The drawing, culled from the school’s archives, is the work of a student, a submission to an undergraduate design competition.

Because of George Clooney, that student — Walter “Hutch” Huchthausen — is about to become famous.

Well, his World War II unit is, anyway.

In 1944, Huchthausen became a “Monuments Man,” one of an unlikely group of middle-aged curators, scholars, architects and art conservators known as the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section.

Their battlefront mission was to mitigate damage to landmarks and to recover artworks, many of them world-famous, that had been stolen by the Nazis. “The Monuments Men,” Clooney’s film adaptation of author Robert M. Edsel’s 2009 book by the same title, opened Friday.

Huchthausen (pronounced Huck-tau-zen) was one of two Monuments Men killed in action during the war. Eerily, and poignantly, his drawing in Fisher’s office depicts a monument.

“It’s so ironic that he chose to draw a monument for his project, and then he ended up being a Monuments Man,” said Fisher.

Huchthausen’s connection to Minnesota began in 1923, when his father, a German immigrant and Lutheran minister, moved the family from Oklahoma to Minneapolis. Huchthausen began to study architecture at the University of Minnesota, graduating in 1928.

“He was a stellar student, incredibly talented,” said Jane King Hession, a design college alumna who organized a student drawing exhibition last fall as a part of the school’s centennial. “He won every award you could win at the school, including the medal that the AIA [American Institute of Architects] gave to the student with the highest academic standing for four years. I think we have three Huchthausen drawings, and each one is more beautiful than the last.”

He earned a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard University, then studied in Europe on a Harvard fellowship. After teaching in Boston and Troy, N.Y., Huchthausen returned to the U in 1939, this time as an associate professor of architecture, “where he proved himself to be a highly stimulating teacher and skillful designer,” wrote Huchthausen’s colleague Roy Jones, in a 1946 obituary.

Until the war interrupted his career, Huchthausen taught interior architecture design, composition, and drawing and painting courses in what is now Lind Hall. Fittingly enough, he made his home across the street from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, in the Fair Oaks apartment complex.

In September 1942, at age 37, Hucht­hausen applied for a leave without salary from the university and joined the Army Air Force, training at Ellington Field near Houston. After recovering from an injury sustained during a Luftwaffe bombing in London, he was rerouted into the MFAA.

“He had his position at the U, he didn’t need to become a Monuments Man,” said King Hession. “He was not a seasoned soldier. So I sense some idealism from him.”

Wartime sacrifice

In his book, Edsel uses words like “knowledgeable,” “worldly,” “professional,” “driven” and “gregarious” to describe Huchthausen. But the bachelor professor doesn’t have a major role in Edsel’s art reclamation story, in part because he didn’t train with the initial Monuments Men group.

As a staff officer in charge of directing the MFAA agenda for the Ninth Army during its march across western Germany, Capt. Huchthausen, fluent in German, hit the ground running.

Beginning in late 1944, he organized a blizzard of recovery and preservation efforts in devastated Aachen, the first major German city captured by Allied forces and the 1,100-year-old seat of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire. Most notably, he had tapped the city’s Suermondt Museum as a key artwork repository.

“On a recent visit, [Monuments Man George] Stout had seen more altarpieces in the Suermondt Museum than he had imagined existed in the whole Rhineland,” wrote Edsel. “And if the Monuments Men had anything to do with it, they would all be inspected, repaired, and given back to their rightful owners.”

That preservation of a priceless cultural history would prove to be Hucht­hausen’s most enduring wartime legacy.

On April 2, 1945, about four weeks before the Allies accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender, Huchthausen and his assistant, Sgt. Sheldon Keck (a Brooklyn Museum of Art conservator) were traveling via jeep through unsecured territory about 30 minutes east of Aachen — investigating reports of an altarpiece — when they were hit with enemy gunfire.

Huchthausen, the driver, was killed instantly. His body knocked Keck to the floor of the vehicle, saving his life. “It was a moment that Shelden Keck — and his son Keckie, who thanks to Hutch was raised by his loving father — would always remember,” wrote Edsel.

Huchthausen was buried about 15 miles west of Aachen in the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial, in one of 8,301 graves filling its 66 poplar- and rhododendron-lined acres. He was one of the war’s estimated 405,000 American military casualties.

Posthumously, he was awarded the Bronze Star Medal.

“Hutch’s attitude toward his mission in the war was one of my best memories,” wrote fellow Monuments Man Walker Hancock in a wartime letter, which Edsel included in the book. “The buildings that he hoped, as a young architect, to build will never exist … but the few people who saw him at his job — friend and enemy — must think more of the human race because of him.”

 

Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib

 

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