In the Early 1900s, Robber Barons Bought Dozens of Centuries-Old European Buildings. Where is Medieval America Now?

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tags: Medieval America



Thumbnail Image - "St bernard de clairvaux church yard 2006" by Rolf Müller (User:Rolfmueller) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

... This was Medieval America—one of several dozen centuries-old buildings imported to the U.S. in the early 20th century. They lie scattered around the country, a hidden patchwork of mostly-illegal monasteries and mansions whose history has been largely forgotten. In reporting this story, Atlas Obscura dug into both scholarly and journalistic texts, and spent time on both coasts, to understand how and why a handful of the country’s most famous families spent small fortunes helping themselves to whole European buildings. The story that emerged is part caper, part mystery, and part tragedy: American robber barons snuck ancient stones out of the war-torn countryside in the dead of night, Europeans fretted over how their familiar landmarks were rapidly disappearing, and U.S. cities spent decades of the 20th century fighting over what to do with tens of thousands of displaced medieval remnants. 

There are two Americans to thank for the strange fact of a 12th century Spanish monastery’s existence only a few miles from Miami Beach: notorious plutocrat William Randolph Hearst, and his art dealer, Arthur Byne. Together, these two men thwarted Spanish authorities, angry townspeople, and all common sense to drag not one, but two monasteries to the shores of America.

In December 1926, the New York Times printed a brief article on Hearst’s importation of St. Bernard de Clairvaux, stone-by-stone, from Segovia, Spain. William Randolph Hearst was no stranger to the Times—a newspaper magnate, short-lived Congressman for New York, and perpetual tabloid fixture for his high profile romantic affairs and fights with fellow tycoons, Hearst had a proclivity for spending money in the most ostentatious, self-congratulatory ways. A regular Times reader of the era would not be surprised to hear that Hearst had imported an entire medieval building. 

The complexity of that achievement was given scant space. The journalist covering the purchase included only a brief note on the obstacles Hearst faced in dismantling and moving a monastery out of Spain: “Twice during the work of removing the cloister, the villagers, banding together, drove the workingmen away on the ground that foreigners were robbing the community of its greatest treasure.” The article went on to assure readers that "the cloister will be the only precious work of art allowed to leave Spain for a law passed two months ago prohibits further exportation of works of art and ruins.”

Yet just five years later, 11 ships filled with the pieces of a second Spanish monastery bought by Hearst docked in San Francisco Bay, in spite of the new laws. Who let this happen? And why were Americans buying, shipping and reconstructing medieval European buildings in the first place? ...




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