Robert Kelley Posey (1904-1977)
Robert Kelley Posey was born in Morris, Alabama on April 5, 1904. He attended Alabama Polytechnic Institute (today known as Auburn University) on a scholarship from the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). He graduated with a B.S. in Architectural Engineering in 1926, and a B.S. in Architecture in 1927. While in the ROTC, he was commissioned in the U.S. Army Reserves as a second lieutenant.
He was also a student activist involved in demonstrations against Huey Long, Fascism, and the Ku Klux Klan. After graduation, he worked at the architectural firm Miller, Martin & Lewis in Birmingham, Alabama. He then moved to New York and enrolled in the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, where he earned a certificate in architectural design in 1932.
Posey received orders from the U.S. Army Reserves in 1942 and, after extensive training, worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers building airstrips in the town of Churchill, in northern Canada. In March 1944 he was assigned to the Civil Affairs Center in Shrivenham, England for training at the Civil Affairs Training School. Soon after, he was assigned as Monuments Officer for General George S. Patton’s U.S. Third Army. Arriving in Normandy, France within a month of D-Day, he was one of the first Monuments Men in the field. As U.S. Third Army made its way through France, Posey inspected historic monuments and made temporary repairs, prevented damage by American troops by posting Off Limits notices, and made contact with local art specialists. In the early days of his assignment, he was solely responsible for the large region of France including Saint-Lô, Coutances, Saint-Malo, Les Iffs, and Rennes.
In January 1945 Posey was assigned an assistant, Monuments Man Pfc. Lincoln Kirstein. Together, they inspected the eastern, more remote towns of France before U.S. Third Army’s advance into Germany via Luxembourg in early spring 1945. During their time in the French city of Nancy, Posey noticed a natural curiosity in the occupying American troops toward the charming city. He wrote and distributed a brief history of Nancy which included basic information on nearby monuments of cultural importance. The American troops were grateful for the cultural diversion, and Posey was later inspired to write similar handbooks for the cities of Metz, France and Trier, Germany.
Posey and Kirstein were involved in some of the most notable discoveries of the MFAA. In late February 1945 the pair discovered a rare wall painting of the Annunciation dating from the fourteenth century at the Priory Church of Mont Saint-Martin in Lorraine, France. The painting had been concealed by layers of plaster for centuries until a combination of bomb damage and rain had caused the layers to peel away. In the city of Trier, Posey came down with a horrible toothache. Townspeople led Posey and Kirstein to a local dentist, who pulled the tooth. Before they left, however, the dentist suggested they visit his son-in-law, who had been an art scholar before the war. In a remote cottage, the son admitted that he had once worked closely with Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and Alfred Rosenberg, leader of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR, the Nazi looting agency tasked by Hitler to assemble works of art for his planned Führermuseum at Linz, Austria). The scholar then proceeded to reveal priceless information that would eventually lead to the discovery of the vast salt mine in Altaussee, Austria in May 1945.
The discovery of the Altaussee salt mine was a turning point for the MFAA. Posey and Kirstein arrived in the Austrian town on May 16, 1945 to find that the principal mine entrance had been blocked by strategically detonated bombs. While locals predicted it would take two weeks to clear a path through the rubble, Posey used his architectural training to clear a path by the following morning. Lantern in hand, Posey was the first Monuments Man to enter the mine, followed closely by Kirstein. Hidden inside miles of tunnels and hollowed-out caverns, the ERR had hidden masterpieces including Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, Vermeer’s The Astronomer, the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, and thousands of other works of art and culturally significant items looted from the great French collections by the ERR. These masterpieces were later evacuated to the Munich Central Collecting Point by a team of Monuments Men led by Lt. Cdr. George Stout and eventually returned to the countries from which they had been stolen.
For his remarkable service with the MFAA, Posey was named a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor and Chevalier of the Order of Leopold by the Belgian government. Some of his memories from his MFAA service were published in an article for College Art Journal entitled “Protection of Cultural Materials During Combat” (1946). Upon his return to the United States, he resumed his career as an architect. In 1946 he began a nearly three-decade career at the architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in New York City. As a senior associate, he worked on many well-known projects, including the Union Carbide Building and the Lever House in New York City, and the Sears Tower in Chicago. He was a member of the American Institute of Architects, the American Society of the French Legion of Honor, and held offices in numerous social clubs in Westchester County, New York. He retired in 1974 after a long and successful career as a respected architect.
Robert Posey died in White Plains, New York on April 18, 1977. In appreciation for his role in returning the Ghent Altarpiece, the Belgian Government sent a bouquet of flowers.
Photo courtesy of the Robert Posey Collection, The Monuments Men Foundation Collection, the National WWII Museum, New Orleans, LA.