An Introduction / by Jake Purcell

A little history: In the summer of 2015, Brianna and I made some research trips to Florida and California to see a couple of medieval buildings that had been moved, stone by stone, from Europe to the U.S. We devoted several months of our lives to tracking down as many examples of this phenomenon as we could, threw ourselves into a few archives, sent a hapless “intern” to Milwaukee with a camera (thanks, Emma!), and eventually created this beautiful, well-produced, long-form monstrosity with the help of some new friends at Atlas Obscura.

We knew we weren’t quite done with the project. For one, our funding from Columbia’s History in Action program, which I administered at the time, stipulated that we had to talk about Medieval America and HiA as often and loudly as possible. For another, we kept finding more and more material, even as we were publishing our first piece, and the details and characters just kept getting better and more compelling: Arthur Byne, forced to come up with ingenious ways to get medieval buildings out of Europe for the indiscriminately rapacious Hearst; George Grey Barnard, whose temperament was so artistic that it even overwhelmed John D. Rockefeller, Jr., into agreeing to a deal; Lillian Rojtman Berkman, a former tractor magnate who could not find a security company she trusted to protect her treasures, and so created her own.

 Nobody wanted to be at this airport.

Nobody wanted to be at this airport.

By November, we were a little burnt out. Too much travel, our actual degree requirements and dissertations, and then there were bed bugs – my god, the bed bugs. We did manage to keep Medieval America’s head above water, though. We were brought in we assume as the entertainment portion of last year’s Art and Cultural Heritage Crime Conference. We visited a few archives and battled bureaucrats, mostly to learn more about Barnard’s complicated estate, which was tied up in medieval buildings.

Now, with a fresh infusion of research funding, we’re heading to California this summer to rummage through the papers of Hearst’s shady art-trading company, the International Studio Art Corporation, as well as those of his architect, Julia Morgan. We’re looking for more technical information about Hearst’s collecting practices, and any clues about one Hearst-owned monastery that we have so far been unable to track down. A little later, we’ll head to some Philadelphia archives to investigate Barnard’s estate and whatever back-room deal let the Philadelphia Museum of Art pick up a treasure trove of medieval architecture for a cool $75,000. (We’re still looking for someone to send us on a critical research trip to the monastery in the Bahamas, if you’re in the grant-making mood.)

Check back here or on our Instagram for stories from the archives, tips on navigating some of New York’s more challenging institutions, and updates on whatever we’re dreaming up at Medieval America.