A Cold War Relic
Photos Courtesy of The Maier Museum of Art
Many Lynchburg residents are unaware of the Cold War relic humbly nestled on the campus of Randolph College. As one of Lynchburg’s staple art locations, the Maier Museum of Art’s history is as rich as its unique collection of original paintings and photographs.
In wake of the Nazi escalation of power, which pinnacled in 1938, Adolf Hitler confiscated thousands of European artworks, paving the way for a new kind of art—one that emphasized the Volksgemeinschaft (the racial community).
This menacing operation, titled Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg, confiscated more than 20 percent of Europe’s art collections, making it the most detrimental heist of art in the world.
It robbed its own citizens and countless galleries and museums throughout Europe.
While some of these stolen treasures were eventually recovered following World War II, thousands were either lost or destroyed. Many items included works from Van Gogh, Michelangelo, and other celebrated, world-renowned artists.
But the conclusion of WWII ushered in another period of foreboding conflict—the Cold War, which stretched from 1947-1991. Fearful of the disastrous art robbery from the previous decade, the United States government knew it needed a backup plan for the nation’s art collection should the Cold War escalate and eventually manifest on U.S. soil.
The National Art Gallery in Washington D.C. devised a strategy to transport its valuable collection of art 150 miles Southwest, to Lynchburg, onto the campus of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College (R-MWC).
The college, founded in 1891, had built a strong reputation of art appreciation. Louise Jordan Smith, one of the first five resident professors at R-MWC, wanted students to be submerged in art, regardless of degree program. She taught Art and French and was the pioneer in building the college’s art program, even launching one of the first American Art History survey courses in 1913. Randolph’s annual exhibition of contemporary art, approaching its 111th uninterrupted show, was also Smith’s brainchild.
“She thought it was really important for all students to be surrounded by high-quality original artwork everywhere,” said Martha Johnson, who has served in various roles at the Maier Museum of Art since 2002. She now serves as director. “Where they ate, where they studied, where they socialized. It had to be a part of every aspect of their lives.”
The National Gallery board of trustees took notice—among other reasons—of the college’s powerful emphasis on the visual arts and authorized an emergency project to guarantee safety of its art collection should the Cold War turn dark. The National Gallery would transport its valuable collection of American art to R-MWC.
The confidential feat was dubbed “Project XYZ” (the “Y” referring to the college).
In 1951, the U.S. government funded a storage building between 6,000 and 7,000 square feet, with roughly 25,000 square feet of vertical space for sliding screens.
The fireproof structure, costing just under a quarter million dollars, was finished in the spring of 1952. Steel-reinforced concrete made up the building’s roof and floor; all aspects of the project were constructed in accordance with industry-standard codes for museum creation.
“There was a sense of urgency in getting this structure built quickly,” Johnson said.
Additional features included more than 60 rows of steel and aluminum sliding screens, a loading dock, and ample space for security.
The agreement would last for 25 years, and it was specified that R-MWC would have complete agency over the building unless the National Art Gallery needed it for its intended purpose. Given the confidential details surrounding the building, the college advertised it as space to house an outstanding collection of campus and American art.
A test evacuation drill occurred in 1962 to sample the abilities of the truck drivers and to ensure the trucks fit into the new building’s loading dock.
In March of 1976, the agreement was renewed for an additional 25 years.
The renewal included a $12,500 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts to fund renovations, which included additional gallery spaces, fresh paint, and other miscellaneous upkeep expenses.
Thankfully, America’s prized art collection never made its way to the college. Instead, the building now houses Randolph College’s astounding collection of paintings, photography, and more.
The museum welcomes thousands of guests every year. Prior to COVID-19 regulations, the museum brought in around 7,000 annual guests. The galleries are open to both students and members of the public.
The museum features five distinct galleries, each presented in chronological order. Upon entering, a portrait of Louis Jordan Smith greets visitors. Walking through the galleries, spectators can enjoy art pieces from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. While two galleries are devoted to changing exhibitions, three remain relatively consistent, featuring the best from the permanent collection, such as pieces by Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Hart Benton, and a multitude of other artists throughout the centuries. The museum even shows a piece by Gilbert Stuart, who painted George Washington’s official portrait.
Randolph College’s Maier Museum of Art carries a rich collection of art and a fascinating history, even floor markings from the original sliders, but it also serves the Lynchburg community by boasting one of the greatest stories of art preservation.
“You have people who come in here and don’t care about art at all, but they love this story,” Johnson said. “There is a lot of history to try to live up to. We do our best to honor that. It’s a proud history to be a part of.”
The Maier Museum of Art is open Wednesday through Sunday 1-5 p.m. Admission is free. For additional information or to browse the current exhibitions online, visit maiermuseum.org, or call (434) 947-8136.