The Monuments Men

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J. Hamilton Coulter ( 1907-? )

John Hamilton Coulter devoted his life to the study of architecture and the preservation of historic structures. Born in New York in 1907, Coulter received two degrees in architecture from Yale University. He studied architecture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts Americains in Fontainebleau, France before apprenticing with the renowned architect Sigurd Lewerentz in Stockholm, Sweden. He worked as a practicing architect in New York City for four years before opening his own firm, J. Hamilton Coulter, Architect, in the heart of Rockefeller Plaza.

By the time Coulter entered the U.S. Navy in 1942, he was fluent in French, semi-fluent in German and Italian, and had traveled the globe extensively. His thirst for travel had led him to France, England, Italy, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Russia, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan and Egypt. This global exposure was essential during his assignment as an interpreter and liaison officer for a U.S. Naval Radio Material Officer assigned to the French Military Mission.

Coulter was one of four naval officers recruited by the MFAA in April 1945. He reported to SHAEF headquarters along with fellow Monuments Men Lt. Charles Parkhurst, Lt. Cdr. Thomas Carr Howe, Jr. and Lt. Craig Hugh Smyth. Smyth and Coulter were assigned to the Bavarian Regional Military Government, Detachment E1 F3, and assigned the task of establishing a central collecting point for looted art in Munich, Germany. Smyth arrived in Munich as Director and officer-in-charge on June 4, 1945; Coulter arrived soon after as Executive Officer and Smyth’s second in command. The two were to remain firm friends throughout their military service.

The location chosen for the collecting point were buildings at the core of Nazism: the Führerbau and the Verwaltungsbau, buildings that had served as Hitler’s office, and the headquarters of the Nazi Party, respectively. Much of the looted art that would soon be transferred to the collecting point had been viewed by Hitler in these same locations in preparation for his planned Fuhrermuseum in Linz, Austria. Such powerful symbolism was not lost on Capt. James J. Rorimer, Monuments Officer for the occupying U.S. Seventh Army. Rorimer insisted to SHAEF that the buildings be released for use as a collecting point. However, General Patton’s U.S. Third Army staff, which was currently occupying Munich, wanted to convert the buildings for use as General Patton’s headquarters. Capt. Robert Posey and Pfc. Lincoln Kirstein, Monuments Officers assigned to U.S. Third Army, were on hand to aid Smyth, Coulter and Rorimer in securing the buildings for MFAA use. SHAEF eventually sided with Rorimer and the buildings were released to the MFAA.

Verbal confirmation of SHAEF’s decision didn’t arrive until June 14, just three days before the first trucks filled with looted objects were due to arrive from hiding places in the salt mines of Austria. The buildings themselves had sustained bomb damage during the war, but shortages of glass and other key materials presented enormous challenges to their conversion. As Executive Officer, Coulter was placed in charge of the architectural aspects of preparing the repository: building repairs, weatherproofing, heating, lighting, water systems, roof repair, filling in windows and acquiring all labor and materials.

With the later addition of an assistant, Monuments Man Capt. George T. Lacey of U.S. Third Army, Coulter was able to serve as a liaison officer to foreign representatives who began arriving at the collecting point in September 1945. Coulter directed the first restitution convoys out of Munich, including the fourteenth-century Hohenfurth altarpiece by the Master of Hohenfurt to the Czechoslovakian government on October 8. The Munich Central Collecting Point would serves as the nexus for the return of some of Europe’s greatest cultural treasures including Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, Vermeer’s Astronomer and Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna.

Coulter was discharged from MFAA service at the end of November 1945 and returned home to New York. His friend and colleague Lt. Smyth later wrote of Coulter:

“He did a superior job in the face of enormous difficulties in the procurement of materials and labor and in the pressing forward of the construction. Without him the Collecting Point would not have been fit for the storage of objects. His accomplishment was one of the most crucial in the whole preparation for restitution.”