Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Church, Two Palaces, and a Generous Heart

Question: What do excavations at Luxor, Egypt and Athens, Greece; the cathedral of Reims in France; the library of the Imperial University in Tokyo; Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming; the Cloisters museum in New York City; and the historical restoration of colonial Williamsburg have in common with the château de Fontainebleau?

Answer: Like Fontainebleau, they all received crucial funding from American philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960).

During his lifetime, Rockefeller, wielder of the Standard Oil Company family fortune, donated approximately $537 million to social, religious and cultural causes. He was particularly struck by the devastation German bombing and wartime neglect had wrought on France's historic sites. In 1924 he offered the French government several million dollars to restore three of them: the cathedral of Notre-Dame at Reims, the palace of Versailles, and the palace of Fontainebleau.

Fire and shelling had damaged and destroyed large portions of the cathedral at Reims, the traditional site of a French king's coronation. According to the cathedral's website, architect Henri Deneux had begun restoration work in 1919, but had difficulty finding the funds, materials, and manpower to support the effort. Rockefeller's generous grants in 1924 and 1927 allowed Deneux to reconstruct the church's nave, roof, and angel bell tower. The cathedral fully reopened to the public in 1938.

The château de Versailles had not been damaged by fighting during the first World War, but by neglect and the redirection of funds. According to a thesis on the uses of Versailles in the twentieth century, the condition of the site was alarming and conservation measures at the palace had come to a standstill, despite the Hall of Mirrors having witnessed the signing of the treaty that ended the war. Rockefeller earmarked seventy-six percent of his donation for Versailles. The money was used to restore the main palace buildings, the grounds, and the two Trianons. Without Rockeller's gift,  the palace as we know it today might not have survived.

The palace of Fontainebleau foundered in similar decrepitude. As at the two other sites, Rockefeller's grant repaired Fontainebleau's roofs, walls, woodwork, ironwork, and masonry--projects which ensured the safety and solidity of the structure itself, as this article in the 1925 Revue des deux mondes emphasizes. All of the windows and doors were replaced and railings reinforced. On the grounds, leaky basins and fountains were repaired, staircases restored, the canal and carp pond renewed. The theater's roof and attics, damaged by a fire in 1887, were rebuilt. Rockefeller's timely gift saved Fontainebleau from a disintegration that worsened daily.

photo by Trizek
In thanks for his dedication to the preservation of her treasured historic sites, France awarded John D. Rockefeller, Jr. its highest prize, the Grande Croix of the Légion d'honneur, in 1936. A celebration was held at the newly renovated palace of Versailles to honor its benefactor. (Watch a short newsreel of the event here.) Francophiles the world over are forever grateful that national boundaries could not  constrain the American philanthropist's foresight and generosity.

No comments: