Long-lost mural of George Washington found in basement in New Jersey


In 2021 while research for is being completed In a book about paintings depicting George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River in 1776, historian Patricia E. Millen discovered a one-line reference to a long-forgotten painting of the fabled scene by noted Philadelphia artist George M. Harding.

“Holy crap!” Millen remembered thinking. “A mural of George Harding? I didn’t know what became of it, but I knew it was important!”

That discovery sent her down a rabbit hole to find the large painting that once adorned the old Taylor Opera House in Trenton, New Jersey. The mural, titled Washington Crossing the Delaware, was completed by Harding in 1921 and was gone when the building was demolished in 1971.

Millen’s book Washington Crossing, co-authored with Robert W. Sands Jr., examines images of the general’s boat trip across an ice-clogged river just before the pivotal Battle of Trenton in the American Revolution, including the famous – if somewhat inaccurate – paintings by Emanuel Leutze, one of which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The book also focuses on the work to preserve this historic moment through two museums separated by the Delaware River: one at Washington Crossing Historic Park in Pennsylvania and one at Washington Crossing Historic Park Washington Crossing State Park in New Jersey, where Millen once served as a volunteer and founding trustee of the Washington Crossing Park Association.

As first reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Millen was reviewing archival records of artwork and old photos when she discovered the single sentence about the missing mural in a state report. Harding’s name came to her. He was a combat artist in both world wars and created murals for many government buildings in the 1930s. His drawings and paintings of Americans in combat have been featured in major group exhibitions in museums, including New York’s MoMA. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts held a retrospective of his work in 1957, two years before his death.

The artist had made the mural for the former Taylor Opera House, which was converted into a motion picture and variety theater in 1921. The building was originally constructed in 1867 by John Taylor, who made his fortune as the founder of Taylor Pork Roll (disputedly known as Taylor Ham in North Jersey and Pork Roll in South Jersey).

Harding’s dramatic painting showed Washington crossing the Delaware River just ahead of surprising Hessian troops at Trenton on Christmas Day 1776. The commander of the Continental Army is depicted wearing his triangular cap while standing in the center of the boat surrounded by soldiers and sailors carrying ice floes fend off.

As Millen dug deeper, she learned that the painting, measuring nearly 16 feet by 10 feet, should have been the centerpiece of a new museum at New Jersey State Park that would open in 1976 to commemorate the U.S. Bicentennial.

Except Millen never recalled seeing the artwork in the visitor center museum when she volunteered there. “I’m getting old enough to think, ‘Was it there and I forgot it was there?'” said the 65-year-old historian.

But Millen hadn’t forgotten. She found an old article that told what happened: The mural was too big for the new structure, so it was never shown there. Instead, it was saved by volunteer restorers when the old opera house was demolished and then stored in New Jersey’s Ringwood State Park, which is about 80 miles away on the New York state line.

“I contacted the park and asked if it was still there,” Millen said. “One of the historians went into the basement of a building and found it curled up next to Christmas decorations, still on the sawhorses where it had been placed in 1971.”

Millen asked if she could see the mural, but was told she couldn’t for fear of further damaging the priceless painting. “That drove me crazy,” she said, laughing. “It’s been in the basement for over 50 years. I didn’t think I could do him any more harm.”

Finally she got to see it. A restorer was called in and carefully unrolled the work of art, which had been neglected for half a century. It was also coated with wheat paste and Japanese rice paper for preservation purposes, all of which must now be removed.

“There’s a bit of mold on it,” Millen said. “I’m sure some of the pigments need replacing, but the restorer said it could be salvaged. It can be restored.”

The Washington Crossing Park Association is raising $60,000 to save the Harding mural, which this time will be placed in a new visitor center built to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the nation’s founding in 2026. The designers of the structure at Washington Crossing State Park have pledged that the painting, once proud of thousands of Trenton moviegoers, will now have a permanent home.

“As a historian, I have a lot of things on my bucket list that I want to do,” Millen said. “Saving this mural is the icing on the cake. I’m excited. I can’t wait for the new museum to open so I can finally see it.”


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