Chapter Seven: The "Complete Restoration" of Valley Forge (part 4)

When the park's "complete restoration" was nearly finished, a "gala occasion" was planned for its dedication on Evacuation Day, in June 1949. The park commission gratefully received the governor's congratulations for their efforts. The park commission's official published report for this period applauded the entire project and its potential value to the education of visitors at Valley Forge. The report said: "Not only do visitors get a better understanding of the appearance and layout of the Encampment but each restoration, according to their reactions, symbolizes one or more of the qualities of the men of Valley Forge which sustained them through their crisis." [67]

This period of celebration and self-congratulation was short-lived, As early as 1951, it was noticed that the huts at Muhlenberg's Brigade were deteriorating. Early in 1952, Brumbaugh was called back to inspect them, and he reported on their problems in a letter to Norman Randolph. "I was shocked and surprised at the extent of decay in certain locations," he wrote. The problem might have been traced to Brumbaugh's craving for authenticity. He had reasoned that in 1777—1778 the soldiers had not taken time to hew their logs (remove the bark). Now Brumbaugh's logs were rotting under their bark. The park superintendent had already begun removing bark and scraping away soft, rotted wood. It would be more difficult to remove the rot where it had crept across the intersections of logs at corners. Brumbaugh obtained a price of $275 each for the repair of the huts from contractor Hollenbach. He offered his own services as supervisor free of charge. [68]

In the early 1950s, Governor John Fine placed the park on an austerity program so no major project was initiated to save the huts. By 1955, the park commission reported that the huts were in "deplorable condition" posing a real problem for the park superintendent. [69] Again Brumbaugh was consulted and this time he investigated the efficacy of available surface treatments. At the May 1956 commission meeting, the minutes stated: "Mr. Brumbaugh had no plan to offer covering the repair of the huts in a practical manner with a reasonable outlay of money." In Brumbaugh's opinion, repair was "practically a hopeless task," and he suggested tearing the huts down and rebuilding them. This was naturally not in the budget, and the park superintendent was merely instructed to do the best he could. [70]

Other references to the sad condition of the huts can be found in the commission's minutes for the following three years. Washington's log huts had been built to last one winter. Brumbaugh's huts lasted a little over ten years. By the end of the decade, they were decayed beyond repair, and the issue became how to completely replace them. This would have to be done economically, using park labor. At one point, the commission considered using "discarded electric poles" in their reconstruction. [71] Brumbaugh's thoughts on authenticity were not solicited at that time.

The following decade would see a major hut-rebuilding program, during which eighteen of Brumbaugh's huts would be taken down and rebuilt and the rest of them removed. When the park reconstructed its reconstructions, many of Brumbaugh's meticulous details were omitted and the huts became almost indistinguishable from the remaining park police huts. In a 1966 letter, Brumbaugh wrote about these "huts of sad memory, because, in recent years, their roofs have been altered, with complete loss of authenticity." In this letter he added, "However, I have been accused occasionally of being a perfectionist, and proudly accept the accusation." [72]

In the years leading up to America's Bicentennial, there was one more phase of hut-building at Valley Forge. This time the work was done by the Schnadelbach-Braun Partnership working with the park staff. By that time, archaeological investigations had failed to provide evidence of a single hut matching Washington's instructions exactly. Instead, archaeologists had found traces of crude shelters that differed from one another considerably in the location of chimneys, the construction of joints, and in wall and roof treatments. The collective evidence led to the conclusion that the urgency with which shelters must have been constructed during the winter of 1777—1778 would have prevented the army from building huts as uniform and neatly lined up as Brumbaugh's. Accordingly, new huts completed in 1976 would be arranged in random patterns and would reflect the wide variety of designs and building techniques used in early log construction all along the eastern seaboard. Brumbaugh would believe that this project went much too far. [73]

An interesting postscript was added to the "complete restoration" when the park commission reconsidered a project that had been previously dropped from the list—the restoration of Von Steuben's Quarters. In 1955, when this subject came up, tradition held that Von Steuben had been quartered in a remote building far up Mount Misery called the "Slab Tavern," which was then in deplorable condition. The proposed project languished for several years until the Steuben Society of America agreed to lend financial support. [74]

In 1960, Brumbaugh examined the old Slab Tavern, but to the dismay of the park commission he proclaimed that it had been built around 1850 and therefore could never have been Von Steuben's Quarters at Valley Forge. [75] Because the Steuben Society had already publicized through its state and national agencies its intention to restore this building, one official wrote the park commission that, despite Brumbaugh's findings, "traditional facts have so long been accepted that there could be no grave error in doing a restoration job." [76] In a special report written for the park commission, John Reed, a historian and author long associated with the park and other Valley Forge associations in many capacities, seconded Brumbaugh's opinion based on his own inspection of the Slab Tavern. But Reed was not an architect, so his findings led officers of the Steuben Society to demand still more research, The park called on another outside expert, John F. Heyl of Allentown, who confirmed the findings of Brumbaugh and Reed. This led the park commission to definitely conclude that the Slab Tavern had "no historical value." [77]

In a book on historic houses occupied by Washington's generals, in which he had described the Slab Tavern as "an ancient cripple, the plaster covered stone structure . . . in sad squalor in the arms of Mount Misery," Edward Pinkowsky had already stated the opposite. [78] Pinkowsky visited Reed to argue his point, but revealed that he had based his assertion on the strength of local tradition alone. Nevertheless, he questioned Heyl's findings, which prompted the park to solicit yet another expert opinion, this time from S. K. Stevens of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, who upheld the positions of Brumbaugh, Reed, and Heyl. [79] Pinkowsky's arguments brought considerable delay, but the park commission finally razed the Slab Tavern in 1965, which by then had become a safety hazard.

Around the same time, the park commission considered giving Valley Forge's other Victorian hotel building, known as the Mansion House, as drastic a renovation as that given the Washington Inn. This building would once again look colonial, and it would be furnished to suggest a camp hospital—its supposed function during the winter encampment (although archaeological investigations in this area have yet to confirm this). In 1965, after he discovered a vague statement in the 1778 journal of Von Steuben's aide-de-camp, Peter S. Duponceau, Pinkowsky began insisting that the old Mansion House had been Von Steuben's Quarters. At Pinkowsky's suggestion, Pennsylvania Representative John Pezak introduced legislation that the Mansion House be called the "Adjutant General's and Steuben's Quarters." [80] S. K. Stevens agreed, provided that building's use as a hospital be emphasized in its interpretation. [81] The building was dedicated by the park commission in 1966 and by the Steuben Society in 1968. The society expressed its pleasure in the cooperative effort and apologized to the park commission for Pinkowsky's involvement. Pinkowsky, they wrote, had not always obtained their approval for everything he had said and written—and besides, he was Polish. [82]

Today the building is considered an unfortunate restoration. It is speculated that it might have had some kinship with Washington's Headquarters in that some of the same eighteenth-century craftsmen may have worked on both dwellings. While the building's exterior may have regained an eighteenth-century look, its restorers came up with a highly unlikely interior plan. Furthermore, during the time when the building was open to the public, the furnishings on view had a distinctly German flavor, and whether they were typical of what would have been found inside such a house at such a location in Washington's day is questionable. [83]

 
Postcard depicting the Mansion House, another former Valley Forge landmark. In the 1960s, this building was also remodeled in Colonial style and promoted as Von Steuben's Quarters.
Postcard depicting the Mansion House, another former Valley Forge landmark. In the 1960s, this building was also remodeled in Colonial style and promoted as Von Steuben's Quarters.

Valley Forge National Historical Park

 

In 1962, the "complete restoration" nearly had a second postscript from the original wish list when Waters Dewees Yeager, a great-grandson of William Dewees, began a letter-writing campaign to restore the old forge. [84] The findings of the excavations done some thirty-three years earlier were still visible in a clump of weeds off the trail running alongside Valley Creek. Lack of funds put this suggestion on hold until 1966, when an archaeologist was employed to reexamine the remains. [85] This project finally fell by the wayside in the summer of 1968, when a freak storm raised the level of Valley Creek to its roadbed and showed that any reconstructed structure located where the forge had once been would be swept away in another such storm. [86]

The purpose of the "complete restoration" had been to re-create the military camp and suggest the activities of people during the winter of 1777—1778. Though they still did not give up the park's attractive landscaping, the park commissioners had attempted to re-create the Williamsburg experience at Valley Forge by establishing new points of interest so visitors could literally see where men had been quartered, where bread had been baked, where a blacksmith had operated, and where the sick had been treated. Today, however, the Knox Artillery Shop is boarded up and there is talk about demolishing it, the Steuben Memorial is closed, and signs warn visitors to keep their distance from Fort John Moore, Redoubt #2. Sometimes the David Potts House is open, but the building itself is usually not interpreted on those occasions. The replica huts were perhaps the most successful part of the complete restoration. Although they require a great deal of ongoing maintenance, they still form a stage setting or backdrop for reenactments and costumed interpreters.

Perhaps the real lesson of the "complete restoration" is that one cannot completely re-create the past. Certainly there was no lack of emphasis on historical accuracy in the work of Brumbaugh, but re-creations reveal only the extent of knowledge at the time, the styles and the attitudes of those who do the re-creations, something that becomes readily apparent as soon as a generation passes and more is learned or styles change. Unless re-created structures can be continually updated, they soon cease to be of interest—until enough time has passed for them to become appreciated as artifacts of their own era, a stage that has not yet been reached by the projects constructed during the "complete restoration" at Valley Forge.

While some were trying to remake the past at Valley Forge, others were hoping that the Valley Forge story could be used to shape attitudes and create a brighter future for their own troubled times.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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