Finley Was There

Recalling an arts leader

David E Finley

Credit: Margaret Finley

Every weekday morning, employees at National Trust headquarters enter the building through an oval foyer that boasts a black-and-white checkerboard floor, a crystal chandelier, and handsome decorative plasterwork. Originally designed as a grand entryway for Washington's most prestigious apartment building, this elegant room has a name, spelled out in brass letters above the door: The David E. Finley Rotunda.

It's not a well-known name, but it should be, because Finley (1890-1977) played a leadership role in shaping the cultural landscape of contemporary America. You won't find his statue in any Washington park, but his memory lights the marble halls of many of the city's—and the nation's—most august institutions, and you could say that practically everything the National Trust has done since 1949 has Finley's fingerprints all over it.

The story of how much we owe to this unsung hero's vision, talents, and powers of persuasion is told in David Finley: Quiet Force for America's Arts, by David A. Doheny, who spent several years as the Trust's general counsel.

As this new book tells it, Finley had a fairly uneventful early life: a South Carolina childhood punctuated by visits to Washington, where his father was a member of Congress from 1899 to 1917, then law school, a growing interest in art, a brief stint in the Army, and a position in the Treasury Department. Everything changed when his work caught the attention of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, who made Finley his special assistant and all-around right-hand man.

As Mellon assembled a world-class art collection, he relied on Finley for advice and assistance in many important acquisitions. And when Mellon died in 1937, shortly after donating his collection to the United States as the nucleus of the National Gallery of Art, Finley was named director of the new museum, charged with not only refining the design of the building but also assembling a staff, acquiring additional works, and ensuring that the institution fulfilled Mellon's vision of a cultural powerhouse that could rival any other in the world.

Early in his 18-year tenure at the National Gallery, Finley became convinced that America needed a national private organization dedicated to preserving the nation's architectural heritage—so, in typical fashion, he set out to create one. In 1947, he convened a meeting of like-minded colleagues that culminated in the formation of the National Council for Historic Sites and Buildings—which, in turn, secured a congressional charter for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. When President Truman signed the bill establishing the Trust on October 26, 1949, Finley was already making good use of his prestige and his vast network of contacts to raise funds for the new organization. As chairman of the board for 12 years, he practically built the National Trust from scratch—and made it work.

As if simultaneously heading the National Gallery and the National Trust weren't enough, Finley took on other jobs as well. In 1943, he pushed for creation of a high-level commission that oversaw the protection and salvage of scores of cultural treasures in war-ravaged Europe. In the 1950s, he spearheaded the establishment of the National Portrait Gallery and persuaded President Eisenhower to save the then-threatened Patent Office Building as the gallery's future home. Working closely with First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, he played a key role in preserving the historic character of Lafayette Square and in creating the White House Historical Association. On a more personal level, he and his wife, Margaret, ensured the preservation of Oatlands Plantation, her family home in Virginia, by donating it to the National Trust.

It's an amazing life's work. It merits a more imposing memorial than a few gold letters on the Trust's wall—the very building, coincidentally, in which Andrew Mellon lived while assembling his art collection—but it's unlikely that the unassuming Finley would have tolerated anything much grander.

In 1676, when a colleague complimented Sir Isaac Newton on his achievements, the great scientist responded, "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Here at the Trust, we know exactly what Newton meant—and we know that David Finley may be the tallest of the many giants who have lifted us up.

Order David Doheny's book on David Finley here

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