A mural depicting George Washington’s troops crossing the Delaware River languished in a dusty basement for 50 years until Ewing historian Pat Millen read about it while she was doing research for a book. With the help of a local group, the painting was rediscovered, and will have a new home in Mercer County.
The volunteer friends group at Washington Crossing State Park is now restoring the mural that will be displayed permanently at the new visitors’ center slated for the overlook at the Titusville park.
Millen, a founding trustee of the Washington Crossing Park Association, came across brief references to a mural depicting the crossing, which then led her to a 1971 “American Association of Conservators and Restorers” article on the removal of the mural that was painted in 1921 by George Harding for Trenton’s Taylor Opera House.
Harding, an American muralist and combat artist who worked in both World Wars, was born in Philadelphia and 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, he was chosen as one of eight combat artists attached to the American Expeditionary Forces in France. During World War II at the age of 60, he accepted a commission with the U.S. Marine Corps as a combat artist in the Pacific.
Between and after the wars, Harding was a sought-after muralist whose pieces now grace federal and private buildings all over the nation. Several of them can be seen in Philadelphia’s Beaux Arts family court building in Logan Square, which is being turned 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,” which was published in 1932. It assured her that the mural was an important work.
The mural hung at the Taylor Opera House in Trenton for many years. Trenton’s first theater, it opened in 1867 and was founded by John Taylor, the creator of pork roll. Taylor was responsible for what many New Jerseyans consider the greatest breakfast sandwich of all time, the pork roll, egg, and cheese. Taylor’s advertising claimed that his grandfather, who originated the recipe using minced ham, was a colonel in the Revolutionary War fighting under George Washington.
In 1921, the opera house was converted into a movie and vaudeville palace known as Keith’s Capitol Theatre, then as the RKO International. The theater was razed in 1969 to create a parking lot. A New York Times article “Association Working to Restore Art Treasure” appeared in 1972 detailing the painstaking process of preparing the mural for storage as volunteers raced to remove it ahead of the theater’s demolition. The mural was coated with homemade wheat paste and Japanese rice paper and was rolled onto a custom-made cylinder in the hope that it would be restored for the Washington Crossing State Park’s new visitors center, which was slated for completion by 1976 for the nation’s Bicentennial.
Before the opera house was demolished, the cylinder was transported to Ringwood Manor State Park in North Jersey, where it was placed into storage in a basement. The new visitors center was too small for the 15.5-foot by 10-foot piece, and the mural was basically forgotten for the next fifty years until Millen started digging around and asking questions.
Millen discussed her research findings with Washington Crossing State Park historians, who were able to confirm that the painting was still at Ringwood. She then approached the Washington Crossing Park Association, which took on the mission of determining whether the mural could be restored for the next iteration of the park’s visitor’s center.
The mural could be restored, and the park association received approvals from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to hire Christyl Cusworth of Cusworth Conservation in Lambertville to arrange for the mural to be transported from Ringwood Manor to a secure art storage facility. The association is now raising $60,000 to restore and frame the piece, thanks to donations from Americana Corner, NJM Insurance, and private funders, as well as association members and friends.
The mural will be restored and the new visitor center will open in time for the United States Semiquincentennial in 2026.
For more information about the project or to make a donation, visit the Washington Crossing Park Association website.