Frank Phidias Albright (1903-1999)
Frank Phidias Albright was born on March 2, 1903 in Pelican Rapids, Minnesota to a family of German descent. His early life was one of Christian simplicity spent on his family’s small farm. He attended school in a one-room schoolhouse and was self-taught in blacksmithing, electrical engineering, and auto mechanics from books he ordered from Sears catalogues. He left the family farm as a teenager and traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, where he worked as a handyman and painter before completing high school. He attended Wittenberg College in Springfield, Ohio, and began studying classical archaeology at Johns Hopkins University, where he earned a Master’s degree in 1936 and a Ph.D. in 1940. Of humble beginnings, he was empowered at every stage of his education by his own desire to learn and a willingness to work a series of odd jobs to pay for his tuition.
During his studies, he worked repairing antiquities at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco. In 1938, to pay for his passage on a Greek steamer transporting the Johns Hopkins archaeological expedition to Olynthus, Greece, Albright worked shoveling the ship’s coal. In addition, he taught courses at Baltimore City College Center, conducted research at the Westinghouse Company, and supervised a project for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) creating scale models of historic buildings in Baltimore.
In September 1942 Albright enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was assigned as an instructor of meteorology and navigation in California. He later worked with photo intelligence, conducted interrogations of German prisoners, and researched German architecture at the Pentagon. In September 1945 he began work with the MFAA at the Reparations, Deliveries, and Restitutions (RD&R) Division. The following month, he was assigned to the Office of Military Government for Bavaria as a MFAA Specialist Officer for North Bavaria. Stationed in Nuremberg, Germany, he traveled around the area investigating claims of looted art. In December he traveled to Guttenberg Castle, where he inspected a collection of objects belonging to the Germanic National Museum in Nuremberg. In February 1946 he returned a collection of manuscripts belonging to the University of Heidelberg and delivered to the Munich Central Collecting Point a collection of 7,000 books and a large collection of Russian icons. In August, he delivered a collection of almost 10,000 books found in the Sturmer Verlag to the City Library of Nuremberg.
In April 1946 Albright was placed in command of one of the most significant restitutions made by the MFAA. On April 30, 1946, a twenty-seven-car train containing the Veit Stoss altarpiece and other looted Polish treasures, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine, arrived in Kraków to the acclaim of delighted Polish citizens and much ceremonial fanfare. In addition to Albright, the train was accompanied by Polish restitution officer Maj. Karol Estreicher, Monuments Officers Capt. Everett P. Lesley and Lt. Julianna Bumbar, and a contingent of twelve U.S. Army guards.
After his discharge in June 1946, Albright returned to the world of academia. He taught Latin at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and taught art at Union College in New York. He also participated in numerous significant archaeological expeditions. In 1951 he was named Chief Archaeologist with the American Foundation for the Study of Man in South Arabia and travelled to Mâreb, Yemen. There, he and his team excavated the Mahram Bilqîs, an eighth-century Himyaritic temple dedicated to the Moon God, Almaqah. While the expedition resulted in the discovery of rare Sabaean bronzes and alabaster sculptures, political unrest in the area caused tribal soldiers to become hostile. Albright and his fellow archaeologists were forced to abandon their work and flee to safety across the desert. The expedition relocated to Oman, where Albright’s team worked until 1953. His research in the area resulted in multiple published works detailing his discoveries.
In 1954 Albright moved to North Carolina and began work as Director of Museums and later Director of Research at Old Salem, Inc. (today called Old Salem Museum & Gardens), a living history museum in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. After his retirement in 1973, he founded the Winston-Salem Museum, and served as President of the Wachovia Historical Society and the Washington Park Neighborhood Association. In his work to revitalize the historic town of Salem, he revisited his early experiences as a handyman. He restored the town’s eighteenth-century fire engine, reconstructed an antique organ, repaired an old church clock, and restored multiple historic houses.
Frank Albright died on March 20, 1999 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.