The Monuments Men

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Walter Desmond Popham ( 1898-1979 )

Walter Desmond Popham was a noted landscape architect and city planner. Born in Charleston, Illinois on March 22, 1898, he studied architecture at Cornell University. He began his career as a landscape architect working at firms in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Florida and giving lectures in planting design at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Iowa State College. In 1930 Popham resumed his studies in architecture at the École des Beaux Arts in Fontainebleau, France before taking courses in Oriental art at Harvard University. At Harvard, he befriended professor and legendary expert on Asian art, Langdon Warner, who encouraged Popham to explore the East for himself. Between 1929 and 1931, Popham made several trips to China, Japan, Korea, and Manchuria, experiences which solidified his admiration for the culture and craft of the Far East.

In 1932 Popham began a long career as a landscape architect for the U.S. government. He worked first with the National Park Service supervising officers of the Civilian Conservation Corps at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Platt National Park in Oklahoma, and later formed early site plans with the U.S. Forest Service at national forests in Mississippi and South Carolina. Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Popham consulted with the Federal Public Housing Administration on the construction of emergency war housing and industrial plants in Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, Alabama, and Florida.

Popham enlisted in the U.S. Army in July 1942 and took his basic training with an anti-aircraft artillery unit. He then received a succession of assignments which included the Intelligence Branch of U.S. Third Army, eighteen months of military censorship training in Alaska, courses in military government at Princeton University, and Civil Affairs training in California. In March 1945 Langdon Warner recommended Popham for service with the MFAA in the Far East. A few months later, the Roberts Commission appointed Popham as Technical Advisor on Structures and Sites for the Arts and Monuments Division of the Civil Information and Education Section under the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP). Uniquely qualified, Popham applied his experience with parks and forests in the United States to the inspection and conservation of national parks and remote mountain temples in Japan. In addition to their inspections of Japanese monuments and cultural sites, Popham and his fellow Monuments Men in the Far East liaised closely with the Japanese Ministry of Education to organize the restoration and revitalization of the national art museums in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nara.

Popham continued his involvement with the MFAA until February 1947. He then remained in Tokyo as an intelligence officer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’s 584th Engineers. Returning to the United States in the 1950s, he studied city planning and public administration at the University of California, Los Angeles before working as a successful city planner and consulting architect. Popham served as a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Forestry Council of South Carolina, and the Asiatic Society of Japan. His articles on landscaping have been published in design magazines across the country, including American City, Landscape Architecture, House and Garden, and House Beautiful.

Walter Popham died in Colorado on July 29, 1979.