If you go

What: Robert Edsel, author of "The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History" upon which the new Hollywood movie is based, will be in Charleston for a special public appearance as part of a fundraiser for The Citadel's new Fine Arts Program.

WHEN: April 3, 5:30 p.m. (VIP cocktail reception); 6:30 p.m. public lecture, Q&A and book signing.

WHERE: McAlister Field House at The Citadel

COST: Admission to the lecture is free; VIP tickets are $125 and include reserved front-row seating for the lecture and a signed copy of the book.

MORE INFO: VIP ticket sales and individual contributions to the new Fine Arts Program at The Citadel will be matched by an anonymous donor up to $25,000. Free parking is available. For VIP reservations, visit www.citadel.edu/finearts, or contact Tiffany Silverman at Silvermant@citadel.edu.

Pringle and Heningham Smith, living in the remains of the Middleton Place estate, decided in the 1930s that it was time for some restoration.

'The Monuments Men'

"The Monuments Men," a feature film directed by and starring George Clooney, opened this weekend in area theaters. The film tells the story of a group of men and women who volunteered for service in the newly created Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section, or MFAA, in order to rescue art objects and other "monuments" of Western civilization from systematic Nazi pillage.

The screenplay was written by Clooney and Grant Heslov, based on the book by the same name by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter.

Its cast includes Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville and others.

The Civil War had taken a serious toll on the property. Union troops burned most of the buildings to the ground, including the main house, the library, part of the secondary residence, the stableyards and more.

The Smiths were living in the renovated building that once flanked the right side of the main house. Workers, including former slaves, still toiled at Middleton Place, and they needed better infrastructure, so the family arranged for a reputable local architecture firm to produce a design for new stableyards that matched the historic aesthetics of the former plantation, along with a new guest house.

Surveys were performed, plans drawn up. The Smiths were not very impressed by the cookie-cutter results.

On Nov. 24, 1935, their son-in-law Charles Duell wrote them a letter from New York City. He and his wife Josephine Smith Duell knew a young architect socially, a man from a noteworthy artistic family, and recommended him to Pringle Smith.

And so it was that L. Bancel LaFarge, grandson of famed painter John LaFarge and brother of novelist Oliver LaFarge whose book "Laughing Boy" had won a Pulitzer, came to Charleston to rebuild Middleton Place.

Several years later, in 1944, LaFarge would ship out to the theater of war in Europe, landing at Normandy just four days after the Allied invasion, and rush to save the vast cultural and artistic inheritance of the West, looted by the Nazis and either hid away in secret underground repositories or slated for destruction because of its "degenerate" nature.

LaFarge was the first of the so-called Monuments Men to reach mainland Europe from the West. He had been plucked from his New York perch, initially assigned to the British Second Army, and tasked with co-directing the biggest cultural salvation operations in the history of the world.

"In his first assignment, he quickly covered the small amount of Allied territory around Bayeux, assessing damage to monuments and works of art, and discovered that the famous Bayeux Tapestry had been moved to the chateau at Sourches for safekeeping," according to the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art. "In the months that followed, LaFarge recovered hundreds more artworks, oversaw the development of the Collecting Points in Munich and elsewhere, and supervised a staff of officers dedicated to the salvage of Europe's cultural treasures."

The efforts of these officers, part of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section (MFAA) of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower's general war staff, were recognized in the 2006 documentary "The Rape of Europa," and now are celebrated in the Hollywood feature film "The Monuments Men," released in theaters this weekend.

Monuments Man

The new movie is based on Robert Edsel's book by the same name, published in 2009 and co-authored by Bret Witter. Edsel, who was co-producer of "The Rape of Europa," turned his attention to art history, in particular, the terrible pillaging of the Nazis, after a career in the oil and gas business.

He founded the Monuments Men Foundation in 2007 and wrote three books on the topic of looted art during World War II: "Rescuing Da Vinci" (2006), "The Monuments Men" and the recently published "Saving Italy."

LaFarge does not appear in the new movie; he was perhaps too far removed from most of the portrayed action, co-directing operations from the Supreme Allied Command Headquarters. Though LaFarge does make a few appearances in Edsel's book.

In an interview last month with The Post and Courier, Edsel credited him with one of the most important salvation efforts of all, the rescue of the 70-meter-long, 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry, "one of the supreme achievements of the Norman Romanesque," as it's called by conservator Sylvette Lemagnen.

"It's the Mona Lisa of tapestries," Edsel said. "Iconic." It tells the story of the conquest of England by William, Duke of Normandy.

Edsel, who spoke by phone from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, where he is a member of the board of trustees, said LaFarge was quickly assigned to a supervisory role.

"He's able to oversee a lot of the reports these monuments officers are writing, explanations of what they're seeing, what their needs are," Edsel said. And he ran interference between members of his team and military commanders. Friendships informed these interactions. LaFarge arranged for the provision of resources, he protected the men from the bureaucracy and he stood up for them on ethical grounds.

Protecting the future

About 400 men and women served in the MFAA or its parent organization, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's American Commission for the Protection and Salvage of Artistic and Historic Monuments in War Areas, founded in June 1943. About 60 of them, mostly middle-age artists and scholars, were active during the last part of the war, sometimes working close to the front lines.

Their efforts helped safeguard thousands of monuments, buildings, sculptures, paintings, precious objects and artifacts. Many of these objects had been hidden away in salt mines and German castles. Discovered by the Monuments Men, the artworks were carefully catalogued and eventually protected for posterity.

It was risky business, and Western civilization came very close to losing a significant portion of its heritage. At least one German officer, August Eigruber, was determined that nothing of value would fall into the hands of the enemy, Edsel wrote in his book.

"The main point is total destruction. We will stay bullheaded on this," Eigruber, contemplating the bombing of the mines, told a colleague.

Fortunately, total destruction did not come to pass. But some works, modern art considered "degenerate" by Hitler, were obliterated in a public pyre that licked the skies of Berlin. Other pieces were destroyed incrementally as they were seized. Hitler, a realist painter himself who had been rejected by the art establishment in favor of those making expressionist, abstract or cubist pictures, sought a perverse revenge. He would rid the world of the corrupting works of Beckmann, Braque, Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee and others, including Jewish painters, of course.

"From his perspective, you're not burning works of art, you're burning trash," Edsel said.

Much was lost; but much, much more could have disappeared forever if it were not for LaFarge and the other men and women of the MFAA.

Edsel said it was hardly surprising that LaFarge was in Charleston before the war working at Middleton Place. Most of these architects and artists had distinguished careers they put on hold to serve their country by rescuing the world's cultural inheritance.

"There is not a city and cultural institution in the country that doesn't have a monuments officer associated (with it) in some way," Edsel said. "They have left a massive footprint in the development of our country, from something more private (like Middleton Place), or in other situations where they have gone on to amazing things."

And thanks to the movie, many of the historical blanks will get filled in, he said.

"We're going to start hearing all sorts of stories that no one's ever known before."

Recalling the past

At Middleton Place, the stableyards and guest residence (now the restaurant) appear to be as old as the house. But they're not. They were finished in the late 1930s and made to reflect the architecture that remained after the Civil War.

LaFarge designed a Dutch gable for the facade of the barn, similar to the gable on the main house, though that was a 19th-century addition made by Williams Middleton. What's more, LaFarge traveled to Barbados to study the architecture there, and incorporated some new ideas into the design of the stableyard buildings.

He widened the roofs by extending the brickwork at the top of the structures. He created a roof for the outhouses based on that of the rice mill. And he followed the descending terrain by creating distinct levels, separated by a couple of steps, inside the guest house.

"He really sank his teeth into this project," said Tracy Todd, vice president and chief operating officer of Middleton Place.

Charles Duell Jr. said he remembers being told by his parents and grandparents about LaFarge's visionary and creative approach.

Pringle and Heningham Smith made an effort to restructure the gardens, widen the "circle" - open space and lawn between the reflecting pool and stableyards - and add buildings "to make it livable."

By building a new stablequadrangle farther to the south and enlarging the grass circle, LaFarge and the Smiths were able to make what remained of the original south flanker appear to be in a more central position, Duell said.

Today, visitors to Middleton Place admire the beauty and symmetry, the lovely gardens and brackish Ashley River flowing quietly behind the property. They contemplate what's left of the rice fields and try to imagine a time altogether different from the era in which we now live.

They stroll through the stableyards or eat at the restaurant, and little do they realize that a remarkable man, a hero who helped save Western art and architecture during World War II, also played a significant role in restoring and preserving this important piece of Charleston's heritage.

The Monuments Man brought Middleton Place back to a new life.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at www.facebook/aparkerwriter.