Walter J. Huchthausen (1904-1945)
By all accounts, Walter Johan Huchthausen was one of the most promising architects of his generation.
Born in Perry, Oklahoma in 1904, his father, a German immigrant and Lutheran pastor, relocated the family from Oklahoma to Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1923. Soon after, Walter enrolled in the University of Minnesota, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1928. His innate sense of design set him apart as a promising architect on the cusp of greatness. In his senior year, he was awarded the medal given to the architecture student with the highest academic standing by the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects. After receiving a Master of Architecture from Harvard University in 1930, he worked as an instructor of architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, and served as Director of the Department of Design at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts. He studied in Germany on a fellowship from Harvard, where he worked in German museums and absorbed the German language as if it were his first language. He later returned to the University of Minnesota as an assistant professor of architecture in 1939 until his military enlistment.
In September 1942 Huchthausen left his position at the University of Minnesota to join the Army Air Force. He was sent for training to Ellington Field near Houston, where he instructed bombardiers and navigators before being sent to Europe for active duty. In June 1944 he was severely injured during a V-1 bombing over London, the German Luftwaffe’s retaliation for the successful Allied landings at Normandy one week prior. After his recovery, Huchthausen was rerouted into the European Civil Affairs Division (ECAD) and sent to the ECAD Regional Training Center in Manchester, England. There, he wrote a glossary of commonly used German terms for American soldiers, and was subsequently earmarked for service in the MFAA by Monuments Man Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb.
Affectionately nicknamed “Hutch,” by his fellow Monuments Officers, Walter Huchthausen was first assigned to the MFAA Subsection, U.S. Group Control Commission. In November 1944 he was placed on temporary duty in the Loire Valley, France as a Fine Arts Advisor to the MFAA. The next month, he was assigned the post of Monuments Officer for U.S. Ninth Army with Monuments Officer Lt. Sheldon W. Keck, a conservator from the Brooklyn Museum of Art, as his assistant.
Huchthausen spent January 1945 in Aachen, the first major German city captured by Western Allied forces. Upon the city’s liberation, the Monuments Men, including Huchthausen, discovered of a horde of altarpieces stored at the nearby Suermondt Museum. Aachen Cathedral, the oldest church in Northern Europe and the resting place of Charlemagne, was badly damaged by bombing. Huchthausen organized the emergency damage control of the church including the repair of its roof, the bricking up of the choir buttresses, and the covering of windows to preserve interior wall paintings. Of his tireless work to preserve Aachen Cathedral, Huchthausen said, “Aachen Cathedral belongs to the world and if we can prevent it from falling in ruins… we are doing a service to the world.”
During the spring of 1945, Huchthausen and Keck made trips into the cities surrounding Aachen, and into the Netherlands, to inspect reports of looted works of art, assess damage to historic buildings, and note those monuments in need of repair. On one of these trips, Huchthausen and Keck accidentally ventured into unsecured territory and came under enemy gunfire. Huchthausen was killed immediately, but his slumping body shielded Keck and saved his life. Huchthausen thus became the second Monuments Man killed in action. He died on April 2, 1945, less than a month before Germany’s unconditional surrender.
Huchthausen was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster. In 1950, his fellow Monuments Men memorialized him in the foreword for the pamphlet Postwar Survey of Historic Architecture in the American Zone of Germany, written by various Monuments Officers and published by the U.S. Department of State. A few months after Huchthausen died, Monuments Man Capt. Walker K. Hancock wrote in a letter to his wife, “The buildings that he [Huchthausen] 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.”
Walter Huchthausen is buried at the Netherlands American Cemetery in Margraten, Holland.
Photo courtesy of Harvard University Archives.