How to explain the relative discretion of this superb museum? The fault lies perhaps with its inaccessibility: No public transportation serves Blérancourt, nestled in the Picardy countryside. After a two-hour drive from Paris, we reach the gate of this château steeped in history dating back to the 13th century. At least, that’s what recent archaeological excavations, which uncovered previously unknown remains, have shown.
It was previously thought that the château’s history only went back as far as 1619, when it was built by the architect Salomon de Brosse, who also designed the Luxembourg Palace in Paris. During the Revolution, the building – one of the first examples of classic French architecture – was confiscated as “national property” and largely destroyed. All that remained were the entrance gate and two damaged pavilions. Then, in 1917, an American philanthropist moved onto the property.
Soon after the United States entered World War I, Anne Morgan – daughter of John Pierpont Morgan, one of America’s wealthiest bankers at the time – founded the American Committee for Devastated France (better known by its French acronym, CARD, for Comité Américain pour les Régions Dévastées). The organization provided humanitarian relief to French communities in the region. The remains of the Château de Blérancourt became the headquarters of the CARD, whose operations were as numerous as they were beneficial. After the war, Anne Morgan purchased the remains of the château, renovated part of it, and opened a museum dedicated to French-American cooperation.
The château is now fully restored and contains a number of recently discovered medieval artifacts. There is plenty for visitors to explore. One of the two pavilions houses more than 6,000 books on the relationship between France and America. The other features a replica of the interior of Anne Morgan’s New York apartments. The central building showcases a number of documents on French-American friendship, as well as a miniature plaster copy of the Statue of Liberty by Bartholdi, and 19th– and 20th-century works by American artists who lived in France and French artists who lived in America.
The exhibition on the Great War is the most moving. Standing before the blue-grey Ford Model T ambulance of the American Field Service, one cannot help but wonder how many soldiers had lain dying on its wooden stretchers. The CARD’s vast archives pay tribute to the self-sacrifice of the young American volunteers and serve as a reminder of the destitution the French people faced at the time. Some of the photos are unsettlingly vivid and are enough to drive you to the verge of tears.
To end the visit on a positive note, take a stroll through the Gardens of the New World. The three designers of the garden (two American and one French) used only American plant varieties, such as Virginia magnolia and sweetgum. Even the choice of flowers is a tribute to the French-American connection.
Article published in the June 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine