Chapter Ten: A Struggle for Growth and Professionalism at the Washington Memorial (part two)

If the parish were to grow and attract more families as members, the chapel would need more space, especially for the expansion of its Sunday school program. Within a year of Smith's institution as rector, he and other members of the vestry were wondering whether it might not be best for all concerned to have the historical society move its collections to other facilities, an idea that was once again being discussed by officers of the historical society. At the end of 1967, the society's minutes noted: "In the spirit of partnership we suggest to the Chapel Vestry that a joint meeting be arranged with our building committee so that the Vestry might be educated as to the purposes of the Society as founded by Dr. Burk, as well as the present goals of our Society." [35] Meetings were held, but it could not be decided exactly where to erect a new museum building, what kind of structure it would be, or how much money to allot for it. In the meantime, the historical society relinquished to the chapel the rooms in which its china collections had been displayed.

Both organizations aimed for a spirit of cooperation, but it seemed that they were entering into a kind of competition over which had the more important objectives. One vestry member expressed his opinion in a letter to a historical society officer, saying, "The housing and display of, say, a china collection is less crucial to the proper exercise of the corporate purpose and commitment of the Valley Forge Historical Society than the need for spiritual guidance to the youth of Washington Memorial Chapel is to its function and being as a church." [36]

The historical society tried to initiate a transfer of real estate between the chapel and the state park that would have given the society a desirable piece of property for a new museum. However, Smith and the vestry declined to make the swap until the historical society was firmly committed to erecting a building. Members of the historical society did not believe they could begin to solicit funds until they had secured their land, so by 1970 this plan had also fallen by the wayside. [37]

A locked door came to symbolize a growing enmity between the church and the historical society. In 1969, Smith locked the door that led from the chapel directly into the vestibule of the museum, where the society's gift shop was located. Smith did not like tourists loudly tramping in from the museum, often leaving behind candy wrappers and other litter. He had also discovered that some visitors mistakenly assumed that the museum entrance fee also purchased admittance to the church. If visitors came to the chapel by the front door, he reasoned, they would approach the building with the reverence proper for a functioning house of worship and also realize that admission was of course free. [38] Society members viewed the locked door as an inconvenience, particularly in bad weather, and their minutes noted this "discourtesy to visitors." [39] The subject was discussed, but the door remained locked.

After the land swap had been considered, the park commission discussed the prospect of building a museum on state park land and simply leasing it to the historical society. In 1972, the historical society's president, Howard Gross, requested the vestry's forbearance, informing them that Pennsylvania Bill 562 had been introduced by a state senator and if passed would allocate $1 million for such a building. [40]

The rector and the vestry had already asked that the historical society move out of the Washington Memorial by that fall, and Gross's letter did not move them. The vestry replied that they indeed wanted to solve material problems but that the chapel absolutely needed the space the museum areas would provide. Only if the room the historical society used as its office and gift shop could be vacated would the society be permitted to stay beyond the autumn of 1972. [41] New pressure was brought to bear after the Upper Merion Township building inspector reported problems and code violations in virtually every room of the historical society's temporary quarters. [42]

While plans for a new museum building for the historical society on state park land languished, some individuals long associated with the park began to question the advisability of this idea. Margaret Roshong, a former park employee, wrote an open letter to the park commissioners reminding them that in 1929 Dr. Burk had been the park commission's bitter enemy. She charged that in the past the society had irresponsibly "lost" certain donated artifacts, and observed that admission to its museum required a fee, which had long been against park policy. [43] In a second letter to Park Commissioner Charles E. Mather she declared, "After 77-years of hard-and-fast rules covering non-commercialization of our sacred shrine, it is fantastic to believe that this administration would so far reverse the policy as to not only permit the practice but to tax we citizens to erect a $1,000,000 building for a competitive group to have the sole right to the privilege. AS BUSINESS PEOPLE, would you provide funds and land to promote the welfare of a business competitor?" [44] By 1973, the park commissioners were considering their own plans for a new museum at Valley Forge and had begun to share Roshong's view that the historical society museum on state land would be a kind of competitor. [45]

The park commission considered adopting the historical society as an associate group, an arrangement whereby the society would retain its identity and ownership of its collections. The professional staff at the park commission, however, would determine how the society's artifacts would be displayed in a new museum, developing a story line for their interpretation, and special programs to attract visitors. [46] These plans fell through just before the nation's bicentennial, when the state park's own future as an organization became uncertain.

The bicentennial year brought the historical society a new president, Meade Jones, wife of its former president L. Davis Jones, who had resigned for health reasons. Mrs. Jones, originally from Virginia, was enthusiastic, dedicated, deeply interested in history, and an excellent organizer who had been on the board of the historical society since 1967. As president, Meade Jones would set the tone for the society's relationship with the new national park created at Valley Forge in 1976, The national park's new superintendent did not want the society's small museum to compete with displays planned for their own new reception center, nor did he want the society to build elsewhere in the park the new museum they had long been discussing. He suggested that the society consider a long-term loan of key encampment and Revolutionary artifacts to the park. Meade Jones considered this proposal and summed up the society's plight as she saw it: The Valley Forge Historical Society was now being pressured to vacate current quarters by the chapel and give up the best of its collections to the park. Would it be left with no space in the park and no source of income? Would the organization even continue to exist? [47]

Friction between the chapel and the historical society came to a head in 1979. Under Smith's guidance, the parish continued to grow despite the decline of both Valley Forge and Port Kennedy as communities and the need to attract members from a wider area. In 1978, Smith reiterated his problems to the historical society, pressing hard to gain space for classrooms and meetings. [48] In the spring of 1979, the historical society was presented with a report listing code and safety violations in their building. Its members also learned that the oil stored in tanks in their boiler room had been drained, reportedly for reasons of safety, and they were ordered by the chapel to vacate the Washington Memorial by the end of that September 1979. [49]

Following Jones's leadership, and believing they were fighting for the very existence of their organization, the directors of the historical society turned to the law for protection, petitioning the Orphans Court of Montgomery County for a judgment protecting the organization's interests and removing the padlock the chapel had placed on the museum's door. [50] By the fall, the court had issued an injunction restraining the chapel from restricting the historical society's activities. Historical society directors were able to reopen the gift shop, and the chapel was ordered to refill the society's tanks with heating oil. [51]

An unlikely battle began, and reporters commented on the "unpleasantries." One writer noted, "It is a term used by both the Rev. Sheldon Smith, the chapel's soft-spoken rector, and Meade Jones, the genteel Virginia-born woman who heads the historical society." [52] All participants appealed for support Jones explained the situation to her sisters in the DAR, [53] and Frank Law, the chapel's carillonneur wrote to "Friends of the Washington Memorial Chapel" protesting that chapel officials were being cast as villains even though they had offered land and $75, 000 toward a new building. [54] Smith avoided the subject, but invited the chapel's legal counsel to speak to parishioners on the continuing litigation. [55]

The key legal issue boiled down to determining exactly what Dr. Burk's vision and intent had been. Had he created a single, indivisible entity called the Washington Memorial, making the historical society not a tenant that could be evicted but rather the beneficiary of a trust? As Meade Jones expressed the concept to the Episcopal bishop in Philadelphia, "Valley Forge is a symbol of unity nationally and internationally, and the wholeness of Dr. Burk's concept for the Washington Memorial at Valley Forge, the interpretation of religious and secular life, is the epitome of the lesson lived and remembered at Valley Forge." [56] Her own painstaking research in the society's records showed her that money had been raised all over the nation for building the Washington Memorial, with contributions coming from many people, such as members of the DAR, who would not have made donations to a simple parish church. [57] As evidence for this position, the society's lawyers observed that Burk had used the same stationery for both chapel and historical society business, and that on behalf of the society he had solicited funds for some of the bays of the chapel's cloister. [58] Burk's ambitious plans had been cut off only by his death.

Litigation dragged on for years. Three times the chapel petitioned the court to dissolve the injunction restraining the chapel from evicting the historical society. Enormous expenses were incurred on both sides before the historical society's position was finally upheld by a 1983 ruling that made the injunction permanent, recognizing that the trust Burk formed had given the society a right to stay at the Washington Memorial in perpetuity.

Peace negotiations began around the end of 1984 after a federal court dismissed the chapel's final appeal. Then tentative discussions began between representatives of the chapel and the historical society on how the two organizations could work effectively together to realize the vision of the founder. [59] The period of bitterness had taken its toll and is now looked on with regret by almost all who are active in these organizations. According to Smith, the most lamentable result was that the litigation clouded many friendships between people who had formerly shared interests and worked well together. [60]

Once Meade Jones was relatively certain that the historical society would not be evicted, she stepped up a campaign to professionalize the organization. She sought federal grant money and initiated a corporate membership program and a major fundraising effort. In 1985, the society formally adopted a collections policy, defining the collection as primarily Washingtoniana encampment-related objects, objects revealing American attitudes toward the Valley Forge experience, and objects attesting to eighteenth-century military life and colonial material culture. [61] Objects that did not conform to the new collections policy could be traded or sold. The society also changed the name of its journal from Picket Post to the Valley Forge Journal, gave it a more professional look, and began seeking material from academic scholars. It was around this time that a bequest of John Dobson brought the society ten more Washington camp cups, giving them an even dozen of these superb artifacts, which remain among the highlights of the collection. [62]

One of Meade Jones's key accomplishments as president was presiding over the installation of a new permanent exhibit at the society's museum called "Valley Forge, the Reality and the Symbol." Funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the J. Howard Pew Freedom Trust made the exhibit's installation possible. [63] The theme came from recommendations of a colloquium panel of historians and museum experts, and the project was directed by Michael Kammen of Cornell University and William T. Alderson of the University of Delaware. [64] By that time, Valley Forge National Historical Park itself was effectively interpreting the story of the encampment, so the display at the museum was intended to complement rather than compete with the park's interpretation. Objects on display not only suggested life in the camp but also showed how the Valley Forge story had developed as a symbol for nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americans, emerging together with a national adulation of George Washington. The exhibit, Kammen explained, showed that Valley Forge had a dual significance: the winter of 1777-1778 had not only shaped the Colonial army but also had served ever since as a lesson about sacrifice and commitment. [65] The exhibit engaged the eye and also the mind, causing visitors to reevaluate some cherished perceptions that many had held since childhood, such as whether Washington had really been observed at Valley Forge kneeling in prayer in the snow.

One of Dr. Burk's key treasures was removed from display at the Washing ton Memorial when the historical society loaned Washington's marquee to the park, where it could be displayed in a more controlled environment, Before the tent was installed at the park's new Visitor Center, professional textile conservators cleaned and examined it—and made new discoveries, such as the long hidden guild or maker's stamp. Before the tent was reassembled, its weathered fabric was backed with stronger material. [66] The tent remains the centerpiece of exhibits at the park's Visitor Center, where people can view it as it probably looked when Washington used it, furnished with a reproduction camp bed, tables, chest, stools, and other military paraphernalia.

Enough has changed at the Washington Memorial to make one wonder whether Burk would recognize the place if he came back today. But the entity he created to interpret the Valley Forge story has survived. The Washington Memorial is not just a parish church strangely surrounded by a national park; the complex remains a key place to go for interpretation during a Valley Forge visit. On another level, it has itself become an artifact and evidence of the spirit of the early twentieth century and of the way in which the Valley Forge story was being celebrated at that time.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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