A priceless painting depicting Washington’s troops crossing the Delaware, which languished in a dusty basement for 50 years, was recently unearthed and is being restored by the volunteer friends group of Washington Crossing State Park. When the restoration is complete, the painting will hang in pride of place in the new Visitors’ Center to be located at the overlook in the New Jersey park.
Pat Millen, a founding trustee of the friends group, Washington Crossing Park Association (WCPA) discovered this long-forgotten mural while doing research for a book. She came across brief references to a mural depicting the crossing in possession of the State of New Jersey, which led her to a 1971 “American Association of Conservators and Restorers” (AACR) article on the removal of a beautiful and historically accurate mural of Washington’s Crossing, painted in 1921 by George Harding for Trenton’s Taylor Opera House.
George Matthews Harding (1882–1959) was an American muralist and combat artist who worked in both World Wars. Born in Philadelphia, he studied at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts. After graduation he became an associate professor of fine arts at the University of Pennsylvania. During World War I Harding was chosen as one of eight combat artists attached to American Expeditionary Forces in France. During World War II, at the age of 60, Harding accepted a commission with the U.S. Marine Corps as a combat artist in the Pacific.
Between and after the wars Harding was a much sought-after muralist, whose Works Progress Administration (WPA) pieces now grace federal and private buildings all over the nation. Several of them survive in Philadelphia’s stunning Beaux Arts “Family Court” building in Logan Square, which is being renovated into a luxury hotel.
Millen also unearthed a black and white image of the painting from the book, “History of the George Washington Bicentennial Celebration,” published in 1932. It gives an excellent sense of the piece’s striking composition and assured her that this is indeed an important work.
The Taylor Opera House was Trenton’s first theater, opened in 1867. It was founded by John Taylor, creator of Pork Roll and responsible for what may be the greatest breakfast sandwich of all time: the pork roll, egg, and cheese. Taylor’s advertising claimed that the founder’s grandfather, who originated the recipe for minced ham, was a colonel in the Revolutionary War fighting under George Washington.
The Taylor Opera House presented major performers of the day, including Mark Twain and Ethel Barrymore. In 1921, the Opera House was converted into a movie and vaudeville palace known as Keith’s Capitol Theatre, then as the RKO International.
Sadly, this beautiful theater was razed in 1969 to create a parking lot.
A New York Times article entitled “Association Working to Restore Art Treasure” appeared in 1972, detailing the AACR’s painstaking process of preparing the mural for storage as volunteers raced to remove it ahead of the wrecking ball. The mural was coated with homemade wheat paste and Japanese rice paper and rolled onto a custom-made cylinder in the hopes that it would be restored for the Washington Crossing State Park’s new Visitors Center, slated for completion by 1976 for the nation’s Bicentennial.
The cylinder was transported to Ringwood Manor State Park in North Jersey, where it was placed into storage in a basement. However, the new Visitors Center was too small for this large piece, whose dimensions are approximately 15.5’ by 10’, and the mural was essentially forgotten for the next fifty years.
Pat Millen discussed her findings with Washington Crossing State Park Historians, who were able to confirm that the painting was still at Ringwood. Millen then approached the Washington Crossing Park Association (WCPA), which took on the mission of determining if the mural could be restored for the next iteration of the Park’s Visitor’s Center, recently approved to be built in time for the Semiquincentennial in 2026.
The WCPA found that one of the region’s most respected art restorers— Christyl Cusworth of Cusworth Conservation— is based just up the Delaware in Lambertville, NJ. With approval of the NJ Department of Environmental Protection, the WCPA has engaged Cusworth to arrange for transportation from Ringwood Manor to a secure art storage facility. The WCPA is now nearing completion of its $60,000 fundraising campaign to restore and frame the piece, thanks to large donations from Americana Corner, NJM Insurance, and private funders, as well as many smaller contributions from members and friends. Anyone interested in helping to complete this effort can find more information at http://www.wcpa-nj.com/harding.
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