John Handley High School, originally known as The Handley School, can be described in many ways: It is the only privately endowed, public high school” in the United States. It is a center of the community. It is an institute of learning. For many, it’s simply “my school.”
For C. Powell Minnigerode, director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art during World War II, Handley was best described as “a large and imposing structure on the outskirts of town, completely removed from other structures.” What drew Minnigerode’s attention was not the Esplanade, the columns, the cupola, or any of the other iconic architectural beauties that set John Handley High School apart from so many public schools. Instead, it was a room in the basement with “walls and roof [of] solid concrete” that “might be considered as strong as a vault.” 1
Though his description might seem unusual, Minnigerode was on a mission. As the country prepared for war in the days immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Minnigerode was setting into action certain protective measures that the Corcoran Gallery had established to preserve “objects …of irreplaceable character” on display in the Gallery should it become necessary to evacuate them. 2
Having visited Middleburg, Virginia, Frederick, Maryland, and several other sites in Winchester, it was seemingly by chance alone that Minnigerode stumbled upon Handley School, as it was then called. Schools superintendent Garland Quarles met Director Minnigerode at Handley, gave him a tour of the grounds, and promised to inquire with the School Board as to the possibility of using the space after making some necessary improvements. 3
After making his presentation, Quarles received authorization from T. Russell Cather, president of the Handley Board of Trustees. 4
By February 1942 evacuation had indeed become necessary. Secrecy was paramount, and so in the cover of darkness on Saturday, February 21, 48 paintings, 3 Gothic Tapestries, and a vase rug were loaded into a van and two delivery wagons and transported to the newly constructed vault at the Handley School, thus beginning one of the most interesting and secretive chapters of the school’s history.5
This chapter, though, remained unknown to most citizens, students, and school officials at the time. Though students and community members undoubtedly knew something was going on in the belly of Handley School, none could imagine that millions of dollars in artwork was being stored beneath their feet. Armed guards, including “Skeeter” Knee who would later become Winchester’s Commissioner of the Revenue, were placed on 24-hour watch to prevent suspicious students from gaining a glimpse at the vault’s precious contents. 6 These guards remained at their post until 1944 when the artwork returned to its home at the Corcoran Gallery. These events remained mostly unknown to the public. For his service to community and country, Dr. Quarles was later awarded a gold watch and letter of appreciation.
1 Corcoran Papers, John Handley Archives, Meeting Minutes December 15, 1941.
2 CP, John Handley Archives, Minutes of the Special Committee on Protective Measures for the Gallery Building and Contents, Monday, January 5, 1942.
3 CP, John Handley Archives, Minutes, December 15, 1941.
4 CP, John Handley Archives, Memo, December 18, 1941.
5 CP, John Handley Archives, Memo, February 21, 1942.
6 Joyner, V. Douglas. Personal Interview. 5, March 2013.