A number of years ago while preparing to scan some requested documents from the Steedman Fellowship in Architectural Competition Collection, some letters with beautiful little sketches caught my eye. I looked a bit closer at the letters and discovered they were not just perfunctory reports about travel expenses, but detailed narratives of an architect as he crossed Europe and North Africa. Then I noticed the date — 1939!
Adventures of an Architect
A read revealed an entire crazy wartime adventure of a young architect (Victor Gilbertson), who won the fellowship competition and set out for his grand European study tour just as conflict was devolving into World War II. All the while sending letters back to St. Louis (to Professor Leslie Hill at Washington University who was managing the fellowship). Letters that Professor Hill answered with growing concern, and near begging for Gilbertson to cut his travels short, and Come Home!
In 2013 I was able to publish much of these letters in The Confluence, a regional journal from Lindenwood University, along with a selection of his sketches. You can view the full article Everything May Yet Turn Out All Right: An Architect’s Adventure in Europe 1939-40 online.
Define all right…
The title comes from a September 15, 1939 letter Gilbertson sent as he left Amsterdam:
“Dear Professor Hill — Until today, the only remaining traveling open to me was to get a bicycle and cover the remaining square feet of Holland. I can’t go to Germany, France, or Belgium. That precludes the possibility of going anywhere. . . . I could do worse than tour rural Holland but I thirst to see the remaining parts of Europe open to tourists before they all become embroiled in war. Out of a clear sky a Dutch boat decided to sail for Greece and I’m jumping at the chance. My address for the immediate future will be: American Express Co—Athens. I will send my future itinerary and the account of my travel in Germany and Holland as soon as I reach Greece. These times are very trying and up until now, very discouraging but in another sense, the situation is certainly interesting. Most everything may yet turn out all right. Sincerely yours, Victor Gilbertson”
An untold story
Of course, to publish these letters I needed to secure the permission of the copyright holder. Although Victor had passed away in 2005, I was able to find his son online and send an email. He was delighted to hear about the letters, and had no idea of their existence. He knew his father traveled in Europe, because he left behind a sketchbook and many large pencil sketches — but it turns out Victor never told his family about the daring exploits dodging maritime patrols and Nazi occupation!
I have been thinking a lot about these letters in recent days. They capture a tension and tone that almost jumps off the page — of not enough information, and yet overwhelming optimism and resilience. And of hopelessness as his advisor wanted him to remain safe, while also helpless to do anything but trust Gilbertson’s choices. And in many, many ways what Gilbertson did was foolish — how he managed to avoid being killed, jailed, or otherwise harmed still amazes me. Having read all the letters, I think it was a matter of exceptionally good luck.
And yet, I am also inspired by Gilbertson’s flexibility and optimism. September 4, 1939, Gilbertson wrote from Amsterdam:
“Dear Professor Hill: I am temporarily stranded in Holland while history is speedily ground out! At least I hope my position is temporary! I am quite thankful tho, that I am here rather than in France or Germany. I came from Cologne on the last train—a miraculous piece of luck… It is possible that I can get a visa for travel in France within two weeks. If I can get a French visa I can get one for Belgium. The Italian border is open, Italy is neutral and to date no visa is required so it looks like I’ll be on my way again. My enthusiasm for traveling is rapidly returning—if they just keep this war in Poland, I’m all set.”
Gilbertson’s professional work is archived at the University of Minnesota Libraries.
The records of the Steedman Fellowship are archived at Washington University Libraries.
Yes, posting something everyday* (ok, or nearly everyday) is overly ambitious but that’s my aim now that virtual is our main way to communicate. Follow all the posts in this series at https://library.wustl.edu/tag/st-louis-history/
If you have a St. Louis history question about this post, or other topics, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @mrectenwald
Stay safe and healthy everyone.