While conducting research for her latest book, historian Pat Millen learned about a historic mural titled Washington Crossing the Delaware, which remained stored in a basement for 50 years until being located in 2021.
Millen, a founding trustee of the Washington Crossing Park Association, a group that supports the Washington Crossing State Park in Mercer County, said she was fascinated by the mural, and began a search for the artwork.
“I think this is most exciting because I grew up in the park, I love that park and I love the story of Washington Crossing because it’s part of my upbringing and part of my love of history,” Millen, of Ewing Township, said. “So, thinking of that one thing that can be saved that’ll be in the new museum one day, it gets me really excited.”
The 15-and-a-half-foot by 10-foot mural, depicting Gen. George Washington crossing the Delaware River on Dec. 25, 1776, was created by muralist George Matthews Harding in 1921 for Trenton’s Taylor Opera House, according to the association.
Harding was a muralist and combat artist, whose Works Progress Administration murals can be found in federal and private buildings across the United States, according to the group. The opera house had been built by John Taylor, of Taylor Ham and Taylor Pork Roll fame.
Millen, through research, learned the mural had been removed from the 19th century opera house when it was demolished in 1969 to make way for a parking lot. She followed a trail of articles and other information that led her to discovering the mural had been taken to Ringwood Manor State Park for storage, and ended up in a basement, where it was left for the next five decades.
Volunteers had worked to remove and protect the mural ahead of the demolition of the opera house, coating it with homemade wheat paste and Japanese rice paper and rolling it into a custom-made cylinder in the hopes that it would be restored for the Washington Crossing State Park’s new visitor center, slated for completion in time for the nation’s Bicentennial in 1976, according to the association.
The new center did not have a space large enough to display the mural, and it remained in storage in Ringwood.
“There were Christmas decorations next to it and it was on to sawhorses, still rolled up in a tube,” Millen said. “I couldn’t believe it was still there, but then I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s been rolled with wheat paste on it and in a basement for over 50 years.’”
Millen said she approached the Washington Crossing Park Association about restoring the mural so it can be displayed in the next iteration of the park’s visitor center, slated to be completed in time for America250 in 2026, a commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States.
Getting approval from the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection, the association worked with Christyl Cusworth of Cusworth Conservation to transport the mural to a secure facility in advance of a restoration project.
The association is nearing the end of a campaign to raise $60,000 to restore and frame the mural. Large donors have included Americana Corner and NJM Insurance.
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Vashti Harris may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.