Chapter Six: Historical Accuracy vs Good Taste: Valley Forge in the 1920s and 1930s (part 3)

The key issue underlying the years of conflict between Dr. Burk and some of the park commissioners was whether the park would swallow up what was left of the two communities of Port Kennedy and Valley Forge and all the territory between them, transforming the area according to their conception of the eighteenth-century Valley Forge and necessarily quashing Burk's plans for the cathedral. By the mid-1920s, park commissioners were aware that builders were planning residential communities at Valley Forge like the one called "Valley Forge Manor" touted in a brochure as a "sportsman's paradise" and an "ideal home community." [82] The park commission used such schemes to justify additional condemnations in the area of Valley Forge village, warning that building developments would "destroy with commonplace houses the natural and beautiful surrounds and make forever impossible the preservation of what now can be preserved." [83] Pennypacker expanded on this statement, speaking of "the menace of bungalow development, of booze parties, of a litter of cans and refuse." [84] By the late 1920s the park commissioners sought sizable appropriations with the objective of new expansion for the park.

As a park commissioner, Burk was consistent in his opposition to park expansion plans. At one point he asked that his vote against plans of the park commission's Land Committee be recorded in the minutes because, he said, their program was "unhistorical and unsocial." [85] He could not see why the park should be any bigger than the winter encampment appeared to have been according to then available documents. He expressed this opinion in a pamphlet titled "What Shall We Do With Valley Forge?" which he personally distributed to members of the state legislature in Harrisburg. Washington, Burk wrote, "never placed any of his men in a swamp. Yet a swamp, filled in with cinders, was part of the ground purchased for Valley Forge Park." Burk came close to making charges of graft with the words "Shall [Valley Forge] become a thin excuse for a raid upon the treasury of the Commonwealth, or shall it be kept as a sacred trust for the Nation?" [86] The park's planned expansion led to Burk's resignation from the park commission early in 1929.

Burk faced his greatest challenge from the park commission later that year when the park commissioners voted on whether to condemn the very land he had already purchased for his cathedral and where he had erected its cornerstone. Park commissioners were divided on the issue, 6 voting yea and 6 voting nay. This meant that the resolution did not pass, and Burk expressed his gratitude in a sermon titled "Valley Forge Miracles," in which he thanked his saviors by claiming, "They stood out against the enemies of religion and patriotism." He went on to state that all the land connected with the Washington Memorial was dedicated to the American people and that "only eyes blinded by jealousy, greed and bigotry have failed to see this." [87] Around the same time, Burk found himself fighting a more personal battle when the park commission condemned property belonging to his wife plus another parcel owned by Frank Quigg, a member of his vestry. The park commission did not object when a jury of view awarded more for these properties than they wanted to pay. [88] Settlements were made, and by the end of 1931 structures on these two properties were razed. [89]

The same year, conflict arose over who would get to host President Herbert Hoover at Valley Forge: the park commission or Dr. Bunk. Roosevelt's 1904 visit had attracted a good deal of attention for Burk's little chapel, and in 1921 President Harding had visited the Washington Memorial where he spoke at the dedication of the Rhode Island bay in the cloister. In 1929, the Valley Forge Historical Society voted to make President Hoover an Honorary Perpetual Life Benefactor of the society and invited him to visit the Washington Memorial to receive this honor. [90] In the spring of 1931, while President Hoover was actually planning such a visit to Valley Forge, the park commission voted to invite him to inspect Washington's Headquarters while he was in the area. [91] Somehow the President changed his plans, and his visit to the Washington Memorial became a visit to the park.

Israel Pennypacker was delighted to receive the President's acceptance and the news that Hoover would deliver a Memorial Day address at Valley Forge. [92] In preparation for the visit, the park commission erected a platform near the farmhouse now known as Huntington's Quarters, literally across the road from the Washington Memorial, and furnished a parlor there for the President's use. [93] Burk complained, "The Valley Forge Park Commission has found some way to have it act as his host in spite of the fact that he is an Honorary Perpetual Benefactor of our Society and was to have received his gold insignia here on Memorial Day." [94] The final insult came when Burk received a letter from a park commission member saying that officials in Washington had already been assured that he would not even ring the church bells at the Washington Memorial before and after the President's speech, as he had been planning to do. [95]

A special train brought President Hoover to Valley Forge, and a motorcade conducted him along Outer Line Drive to the National Memorial Arch and finally to the speaker's platform. The President's speech remains one of the strongest and best ever delivered at Valley Forge, skillfully linking the Valley Forge experience to America's then very depressed economy. "The American people are going through another Valley Forge at this time," he said. "To each and every one of us it is an hour of unusual stress and trial." Stressing a point he would make many times in his administration, Hoover observed that there were no panaceas, and that the American people did not collectively owe each individual a living. At Valley Forge, Washington and his men too might have surrendered to despair, but chose instead to conserve their strength and husband their resources. Similarly, America now depended on "the inventiveness, the resourcefulness and the initiative of every one of us. . . . God grant that we may prove worthy of George Washington and his men of Valley Forge." [96] Dr. Burk did not have a seat on the speakers' platform, and the invocation that day was delivered by the Episcopal bishop, the Rt. Rev. Francis M. Tait. Before the President departed, however, Burk did manage to present him with a bouquet of thirty red roses, which was enough to get his own name in the news. [97]

The American people would survive the depression, but Burk did not. He died on June 30, 1933, and was buried in the churchyard behind the Washington Memorial. The president of the American Friends of Lafayette condoled the officers of the Valley Forge Historical Society with the words "It is a distinct loss to those who are interested in keeping alive the traditions of our Country, when a real enthusiast falls out of the ranks." [98] Burk's cathedral essentially died with him. The few physical remains of his ambitious plans include the cornerstone now hidden by thick undergrowth in a wooded area of the Washington Memorial property, and a statue Burk intended for cathedral decoration.

In 1931, Burk had obtained permission from the governor of Virginia to make a bronze cast of the famous statue of Washington by Jean Antoine Houdon in the state capitol at Richmond. Burk had hoped that President Hoover would dedicate it during his visit to Valley Forge that spring— another dream that never came true. [99] This statue was still standing at the cathedral site in the 1940s when the park commissioners considered acquiring their own statue of Washington for the park but doubted that funds could be secured for this purpose. [100] Burk's statue apparently fell into park hands when the commissioners purchased a few acres of Washington Memorial land. [101] It was placed at Huntington's Quarters, but in 1957 plans were made to move it to Washington's Headquarters, where it was mounted on a base and attractively landscaped and considered quite tasteful, until it was removed in the interests of historical accuracy. It is now in the park's Visitor Center.

Until his death, Burk optimistically continued collecting artifacts and hoping to expand his museum operations. In 1930, the volunteer firemen of Pennsylvania were raising money for a museum of fire-fighting apparatus, to be located on the Washington Memorial grounds. [102] The following year, the historical society purchased another of its treasures, the 1883 painting titled Washington Reviewing His Troops at Valley Forge by W. T. Trego. The directors of the society, however, soon felt the effects of the depression and had to call special meetings to determine what could be done when people began neglecting to pay their membership dues, causing debts to mount. A few months after Burk's death, the society sent a form letter asking recipients to donate money for coal to heat the museum. [103] As the difficult 1930s continued, without the enthusiasm and leadership of Dr. Burk, collecting virtually ceased. In 1938, the historical society reported a lack of funds for the purchase of artifacts, "owing largely to the depression." [104]

Fig. 17. Valley Forge's replica of Jean Antoine Houdon's statue of George Washington. Burk hoped it would adorn the cathedral he planned for Valley Forge. For a number of years, the statue was placed outside Washington's Headquarters. Today, it is located in the Visitor Center.
Fig. 17. Valley Forge's replica of Jean Antoine Houdon's statue of George Washington. Burk hoped it would adorn the cathedral he planned for Valley Forge. For a number of years, the statue was placed outside Washington's Headquarters. Today, it is located in the Visitor Center.

Valley Forge National Historical Park


Burk did live long enough to see the demise of the expansion plans proposed for the park between 1927 and 1929. In the summer of 1929, Pennsylvania's governor informed the park commission that no funds were available for extending the park, [105] and they were not forthcoming two years later when the park commission sought $100,000 to purchase land. [106] As a result, the Land Committee considered raising its own funds "from the general public for the acquisition of land needed for the proper completion of the park." [107] They even took a lesson from Dr. Burk, contemplating the sale of certificates to public school students. [108] But neither scheme was carried out.

Dr. Burk also lived long enough to see his old enemy, Israel Pennypacker, removed from the park commission. When Governor Gifford Pinchot took office, he decided to purge the appointed officials and state employees he had inherited from the previous administration of rival Republicans. Early in 1932, members of the park commission got letters asking them to continue to serve but demanding that they sign a loyalty pledge to the governors platform. Most refused, and Governor Pinchot named newcomers to the park commission. Pennypacker later lamented those who had been replaced, describing them as "a number of the most interested, best informed and most diligent of the members of the Commission." [109]

By the end of the transition period of the 1920s and 1930s, the evolution thus far of Valley Forge as a historic site had created a strangely eclectic landscape. In a 1936 book called The Blue Hills, Cornelius Weygandt wrote:

The hills of Valley Forge were far more beautiful in my youth than they are to-day. Then there was no intrusion of a Gothic church, of an architecture alien to eighteenth century America; and then the countryside was still a typical stretch of Pennsylvania farm country. Now large portions of the park look like a cemetery without graves. Gettysburg has been preserved as Pennsylvania farm country. Valley Forge has suffered the indignity of being transformed into a "park." [110]

Unknown to the author, the park commission was formulating plans that would transform it even more.

Fig. 18. Dr. Burk's grave, behind the Washington Memorial Chapel. The marker lists his many accomplishments.
Fig. 18. Dr. Burk's grave, behind the Washington Memorial Chapel. The marker lists his many accomplishments.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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