Ralph W. Hammett, Monuments Man
He helped save Europe's treasures--and Ann Arbor's.
by Margaret A. Leary
From the February, 2014 issue
I have long been curious about the late Ralph W. Hammett. A U-M architecture professor, he designed many local buildings, including an addition to the Ann Arbor (then Women's) City Club on Washtenaw, the Congregational Church's Douglas Memorial Chapel on William, and a home on Newport for Ruth Wanstrom, one of the early women on the U-M Medical School faculty. I attend meetings at the City Club, was married in the Douglas Chapel, and live in that house on Newport. But I began serious research into Hammett's life only last fall when, as a volunteer reference librarian at the U-M Bentley Historical Library, I received an inquiry from one of his relatives.
His interest had been piqued by publicity for the upcoming film Monuments Men, about the small cadre of experienced specialists--art and architectural historians and museum curators--assigned to protect western Europe's cultural treasures during World War II.
Hammett was a Monuments Man. He arrived in France in August 1944, one of the first three members of the army's Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA) in the country. When soldiers almost blew up Chartres Cathedral because they thought it harbored German snipers, he was one of the men who protected it. Hammett was the ranking MFAA officer in an area that encompassed most of France, southern Belgium, and Luxembourg. Then he came home to one of Ann Arbor's most beautiful and historically significant buildings, the Guy Beckley house on Pontiac Trail. He had saved that, too.
Born in Mankato, Minnesota, in 1896, Hammett was a seaman in the Navy during World War I; earned bachelor's and master's degrees in architecture at the University of Minnesota and Harvard, respectively; and taught at the University of Washington and what is now the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago before coming to the U-M in 1931. By then he had published The Romanesque Architecture of Western Europe: Italy, France, Spain, Germany and England, researched during a two-year fellowship at the American
Academy in Rome.
In 1933, he purchased the Guy Beckley House at 1425 Pontiac Trail. According to a 1936 Ann Arbor News article, the house had been empty for years and was almost past repair when Hammett acquired it.
In his second book, Architecture in the United States: A Survey of Architectural Styles Since 1776, Hammett wrote that the house was built in 1842 for "the Reverend Guy Beckley, a Methodist minister and ardent abolitionist, who published a small but nationally distributed antislavery magazine, The Signal of Liberty." The Ann Arbor station of the underground railway for escaped slaves headed to Canada, it was, he wrote, "a yellow-painted brick New England Georgian type." He restored the small front portico with two fluted Ionic columns and added "such modern amenities as plumbing and heating," along with "a temple-like side porch." His family lived there for twenty-two years.
In 1943, the regents granted Hammett leave from his U-M position, and he entered the army as a captain. The directors of major museums in the United States had persuaded the military to save as much of the culture of Europe as possible. Shortly before the invasion of France in June 1944, Allied supreme commander Dwight Eisenhower issued an order to protect monuments and cultural collections.
Eisenhower's order began by acknowledging that the fighting was "designed to preserve our civilization" and that "inevitably in the path of our advance" will be "historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve." The order continued: "It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible."
After the war, Hammett wrote about his experience in several articles and reports; Robert Edsel's book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History also provides glimpses of what he contributed. With the Harvard Museum's George Stout and Metropolitan Museum of Art curator James Rorimer, he was one of the first three Monuments Men to reach France. Edsel describes their meeting--"three middle aged men in wrinkled brown uniforms"--on August 13, 1944, outside the ruins of Saint-Lo.
What did he do? Hammett wrote:
"Our work consisted of 1) protecting monuments, 2) recording war damage, and 3) supervising the billeting of troops. As the combat zone moved forward ... the specialist officer checked damage to historical buildings, fine arts, and libraries. Contacts were made with owners and French government officials in charge of the various monuments. Instructions were given as to the joint responsibility of the military and the French administration. Ostensibly the local authority continued its control, but our military had the right to take over and use any building, no matter how important, if military necessity demanded."
The Monuments Men tried to see to it that officers didn't abuse that power. "Our own brass hats gave us some embarrassing problems," Hammett wrote. "Twice, high ranking officers attempted to take over Fontainebleau ... and a high headquarters group wanted to hold a dance in the hall of mirrors at Versailles."
Hammett continues: "In the field of fine arts and historical monuments, France is well organized and at no time during German occupation did she lose control of them. Soon after Munich she started moving her valuable collections to various depositories where everything was packed, listed, and kept under constant guard ... Their contents included the best from national and municipal collections, the finest stain glass from churches and cathedrals [including Chartres], valuable archives, and a few of the best private collections. During the occupation the Germans were aware of most of these depositories and regularly inspected many of them. With a few exceptions, they did not attempt to disturb collections owned by the government, as they controlled the government and believed that after the war they could do as they wished with these prizes ..."
"On the other hand, private collections that were not hidden away did not do so well. The Germans confiscated Jewish properties from the very start. Chateaux and fine residences were plundered ruthlessly and millions of dollars' worth of furnishing, paintings, sculptures, books, and silverware were exported into Germany. A clearinghouse was set up in the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris where inventories of these collections were kept, and the finest works displayed for sale. Goering visited this changing display no less than thirteen times in order to buy masterpieces for himself and Hitler ... The looting of chateaux and fine residences in France and Belgium became one of the big businesses of the German occupation. Looting was by no means limited to Jewish property. A steady caravan of trucks and freight cars loaded with fine furnishings, works of art, and household goods passed over the German border everyday." His successors in the MFAA would continue to work on finding, inventorying, and returning those treasures until 1951. Hammett himself was discharged as a major in 1945 and resumed teaching at the U-M that fall.
Hammett returned to 1425 Pontiac Trail, where he lived until 1956, when he moved into a new house he had designed at 485 Riverview Drive. He maintained his interest in European architecture, spending 1953-54 travelling in Portugal, Spain, France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and Holland, and returning to the American Academy in Rome as architectural professor.
Hammett retired in 1965. The regents' act approving his emeritus status noted that he "revealed a nicely balanced feeling for the changing aspects of architectural practice and for the permanent" and that he "concerned himself with the preservation of past architectural monuments while retaining a lively interest in the modern scene and sharing with his students his practical contemporary expertness."
In 1961-62, he had an architectural practice at 201 E. Liberty with Art Van Curler and William R. Fritz. By 1971 he was living at 311 Lake Haven as an early resident of the David Osler-designed Geddes Lake townhouses. He briefly lived in Huron Towers on Fuller Road before moving in 1977 to Rochester, Minnesota, where he had family. He died there on July 11, 1984.
Perhaps Ralph Hammett's most lasting contributions to Ann Arbor stand today in the form of the buildings that he designed. Besides the houses on Newport and Riverview, the City Club addition, and the Douglas Chapel, he designed the parish hall for St. Andrews Episcopal Church, the addition to the Pi Beta Phi sorority at 836 Tappan, the Lutheran campus ministry at Hill and Forest, and Trinity Lutheran Church at 1400 W. Stadium Blvd.
Like the Beckley house and his work saving the cultural heritage of Western Europe during World War II, his buildings stand as proof--monuments, one could call them--to his lifelong commitment to making the world a better place through architecture.
[Originally published in February, 2014.]