Valley Forge
National Historical Park
Chapter 10
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A Struggle for Growth and Professionalism at the Washington Memorial

Much of the early literature generated by Dr Burk emphasized that the Washington Memorial had been founded for "religious and patriotic purposes." [1] The American flag flew when services were being conducted in the chapel, which occurred not only on Sundays and religious holidays, but on national holidays as well, In Burk's mind, his parish, his historical society, and all the other projects he originated fit logically together. Yet the Washington Memorial was also the creature of Burk's era and of the force of his own personality. Would it survive intact after his death, while attitudes of Americans toward religion and patriotism underwent considerable change?

In 1937, several years after Burk died, the Rev, Dr. John Robbins Hart became rector at the chapel. Hart was a Philadelphia native educated at the University of Pennsylvania, where he had also served as chaplain. He had been a columnist for the Philadelphia Public Ledger and was active in many Philadelphia area upper-crust organizations, such as the Union League, the Penn Athletic Club, and the Philadelphia Optimist Club, among many others. During the course of his life he would make headlines by preaching before the British Royal Family at the Royal Chapel in England. [2]

At the time he took over, the Washington Memorial was probably best known as a charming little chapel just perfect for weddings. Its popularity as a place to tie the knot had been on the rise since about 1919. In 1935, it was reported that 283 weddings had taken place there, 66 of them in June. That year, couples came from eighteen different states, and a local paper speculated that more marriages occurred at the Washington Memorial Chapel than in any other church in Pennsylvania. [3] The chapel employed a "directress of weddings," charged a fee of $5.00, and required a waiting period of three days, something that not all the happy couples were aware of. It made the local news in 1937 when one couple drove with their wedding party from Reading in Berks County but were turned away from the chapel because they had not notified the chapel three days before. They headed for a telephone and got in touch with a Lutheran minister in Phoenixville, begging him to marry them "somewhere in Valley Forge" be it under a tree or out on the "battlefields." The minister had no way of getting to Valley Forge, so the couple and their friends came to get him. He then convinced them to be married in his own Phoenixville church. It was not Valley Forge, but apparently for this couple it was close enough. [4]

Hart wanted to complete the building complex at the Washington Memorial according to Burk's original plans, and by 1941 he was collecting funds for a bell tower. The tower would house the National Peace Chime, a collection of bells that Dr. Burk had begun to accumulate. Originally there had been thirteen bells (one for each original colony) and a "national bell," giving Burk enough notes to play the National Anthem. Gradually other bells had been funded, and by the time Dr. Hart took over at the chapel there were forty bells hanging in a wooden structure behind the chapel. Hart wanted to move the bells into a stone tower that would adjoin the temporary museum, and he began writing letters to individuals and organizations describing the bell tower as "a memorial to a Free American People by a Free American People." [5] One recipient discouragingly complained about rising taxes and the huge number of appeals one received, replying, "I should think this would be about as bad a time as one could choose to raise money for the belltower." [6]

A fortunate connection with the DAR enabled construction to begin. Various state DAR chapters had already raised money for some of the bells, and one DAR member, inspired by Hart, established a committee to secure funds for the tower. [7] Construction began in the fall of 1941 according to plans drawn up by the Philadelphia firm Zantzinger & Borie. [8] The tower would be called the "Robert Morris Thanksgiving Tower," and while construction continued, Hart planned its dedication for Thanksgiving Day 1942. [9] The demands created by World War II for money and labor slowed this project down considerably, but the pace picked up once again as the war ended. The Valley Forge Historical Society's journal reported regularly how much the daughters had collected for the project—more than $61,000 by the fall of 1946, [10] some $85, 000 by the spring of 1947, [11] and finally $122,941 (enough to complete the tower) by May 1947. [12]

Construction began again in 1949, and the tower's cornerstone (originally laid in 1944) was relaid on Evacuation Day 1950. At an elaborate ceremony an additional box of memorial contents was added to the one already sealed inside the stone. Speeches were made by the proud rector of the Washington Memorial Chapel, various DAR members, representatives from the Sons of the American Revolution, and members of an organization called the Children of the American Revolution. The hymn "Faith of Our Fathers" was played on the carillon bells, still housed in their old wooden frame. [13] During the postwar era, the exciting project of building the tower got so much attention that few people remarked on the demolition of the small, original frame chapel, which was removed in 1947. [14]

Hart also had plans for the Valley Forge Historical Society, and in 1939 he made public his intent "to get it back to the prominence it gained under the late Dr. W. Herbert Burk," a scheme that included a large, new museum. [15] In 1941, it seemed that the Washington Memorial would soon have a new place to house the society's collections when the National Sojourners (an Army and Navy officers' division of the Free and Accepted Masons) announced plans to sponsor a new structure called "Patriots Hall," which would be wedged between the chapel and the new bell tower. [16] The National Sojourners pledged $100,000, plans were drawn up, and an architectural model was constructed. In 1942, the historical society minutes noted that "war conditions" might incur delays, but members remained optimistic. [17] Their hopes faded within a year when they learned that the National Sojourners had not even started a fundraising campaign. [18] By the end of 1944, the society got the bad news that the organization had withdrawn its sponsorship of the building project. [19] Once the war was over the society hoped that the parish vestry could help raise funds, but as the years went by and the project's estimated price tag rose from $350,000 in 1947 [20] to $1,000,000 in 1957, [21] the prospect of a new museum became more and more remote for the historical society.

Hart and fellow members of the historical society turned their attention to the contents of the museum building they already had. Burk's collection policy had been all-encompassing, but Hart recognized the need to refine and limit the scope of the collection. Besides their excellent examples of Washingtoniana and objects with Revolutionary War associations, the historical society had a mismatched assortment of donated objects. For example, among their holdings was a piano Queen Victoria had presented to the famous midget Tom Thumb. [22] And in 1945 one donor was assured that the statue of Humpty Dumpty he had given the society would not be removed from display. An officer wrote him: "As a matter of fact just this week we placed Humpty Dumpty at the entrance to one of our rooms in a more prominent position that [sic] it had been placed." [23]

A 1951 cleanup effort unearthed some real treasures that current members of the historical society did not even know were in the museum. Several women volunteers decided to clean the display room where Washington's marquee was set up, the area concealed by its canvas walls having long been used as a catchall. One participant was put to work sorting through an old cardboard box that had not been opened in years, and she immediately found a collection of signatures of signers of the Declaration of Independence. The ladies pulled other treasures out of the tent, including several letters of George Washington, Washington's vest and gold seal ring, and Martha Washington's "shawls." [24]

Hart and his officers decided to weed out inappropriate objects from the collection and do a better job of displaying the remaining ones. Relics with no real connection to the encampment or the Revolutionary War would be disposed of, perhaps by loaning them to other museums. [25] Objects associated with the Civil War or the Spanish American War might be traded for objects with Revolutionary associations. [26] It was also decided that the exhibit rooms needed to be arranged with more purpose and that the museum overall "must not present the atmosphere of a funeral parlor." [27] By 1950, a portion of the museum had been transformed into one of the then very popular period room settings, and the historical society named it the "Gallery of Home Decorative Arts and Crafts." [28]

In the early 1960s, the Washington Memorial Library, little used since the death of Dr. Burk, also received some attention. Books were sorted and cataloged, while others were disposed of, making the library at least accessible to users. It was optimistically hoped that the library collection, though it would necessarily remain small, would attract theological scholars and historians and become "a memorial to God and the American Revolution, the freedom of soul and the freedom of man." [29]

While Dr. Hart's efforts generally had the effect of carrying out Burk's program, a change would come in the mid-1960s when Hart retired and Sheldon Moody Smith became rector at Washington Memorial Chapel. Hart remained connected with the Washington Memorial, residing at Defenders' Gate and continuing to act as president of the historical society, while Smith focused on the project of developing a parish of the Episcopal Church.

Smith, who came with the highest recommendations as priest, parish worker, and scholar, []30] had been warned by church officials that the parish had been going nowhere and was in danger of disbanding. When he arrived for his first interview at the chapel, he was shocked at what he found. There was not so much as a sign identifying the building as a church, and in its vestibule a lady in colonial dress was selling little brass cannon. In speaking with the vestry (the decision-making body of a local Episcopal church) Smith also discovered that the choir and acolytes were paid for their services and that there was no altar guild and no Sunday school classes to speak of. Smith made it clear to the vestry that if he became rector of Washington Memorial Chapel, his mission would be to keep the parish alive and nurture its growth. He announced he would accept the appointment as rector only if he had the unanimous support of the vestry. [31]

Some of Smith's changes effectively downplayed the role of the Washington Memorial Chapel as a national shrine. He drastically limited the "State Sunday" services that had been initiated by Dr. Burk to honor a different state each week with a special service and perhaps a guest speaker. Smith restricted the eligible states to the thirteen original colonies and then those states contiguous to Pennsylvania. He also drastically limited the number of weddings performed at the chapel, which in Hart's day had increased to 500 per year. "I could see them in the pews," he said, "an anxious young couple just waiting to pounce after the service." Smith can still recall how in 1974 he was contacted by a young woman who wanted to be married in the Washington Memorial Chapel on July 4, 1976. This was not possible, he explained, because the day was a Sunday, when weddings were not conducted. "Besides," he asked, "are you sure your fiance will want to wait that long?" Oh, she was not yet engaged, she replied, but by that time she was sure she would be and she already knew that she wanted to be married in the pretty little chapel at Valley Forge. [32] Smith made it clear that wedding ceremonies would be conducted primarily for members of his parish, and by 1968 Frank Law, who played the carillon in the Washington Memorial's bell tower, reported that the chapel was down to about two weddings a month. [33] Smith's action had the interesting effect of raising the number of requests received by the park for outdoor weddings at Valley Forge, a practice discontinued in 1976 in anticipation of the nation's bicentennial. [34]


Valley Forge
©1995, The Pennsylvania State University Press
treese/treese10.htm — 02-Apr-2002