Missing George Washington mural found in New Jersey basement


In 2021, while completing research for a book of pictures 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 famed Philadelphia artist George M. Harding.

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

This discovery sent her down an investigative rabbit hole to locate the large painting that had once graced the old Taylor Opera House in Trenton, NJ. The mural, titled “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” completed by Harding in 1921, had disappeared 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-choked river just before the decisive Battle of Trenton in the American Revolution, including the famous—if somewhat inaccurate – paintings by Emanuel Leutze, one of which hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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

As first reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Millen double-checked archival records of artwork and old photos when she saw the single sentence about the missing mural in a state report. Harding’s name jumped out at her. He was a combat illustrator in both World Wars and created murals for many government buildings in the 1930s. His drawings and paintings of Americans in battle were featured in major group exhibitions at museums, including New York’s MoMA. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts held a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1957, two years before he died.

The artist had created the mural to hang in the former Taylor Opera House, which was converted into a movie and vaudeville theater in 1921. The building was originally built in 1867 by John Taylor, who made his fortune as the founder of the Taylor Pork Roll (perpetually known as Taylor ham in North Jersey and pork roll in South Jersey).

Harding’s dramatic painting showed Washington at the middle crossing of the Delaware River just before surprising Hessian troops at Trenton on Christmas Day 1776. The Continental Army commander is depicted with his three-cornered cap as he stands amidships, surrounded by soldiers and sailors fending off floes .

When Millen dug deeper, she learned that the painting, measuring nearly 16 feet by 10 feet, was to have been the centerpiece of a new museum in a New Jersey state park scheduled to open for America’s Bicentennial in 1976.

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

But Millen had not forgotten it. She found an old article that told what had happened: The mural was too big for the new structure, so it was never displayed there. Instead, it was saved by volunteer preservationists when the old opera house was torn down and then stored in Ringwood State Park in New Jersey, located 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 to the basement of a building and found it rolled 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 could not for fear of further damaging the priceless painting. “It drove me crazy,” she said with a laugh. “It has been in the cellar for over 50 years. I didn’t think I could do more damage to it.”

Eventually she got to see it. A conservator was called in and carefully unrolled the artwork, which had suffered from half a century of neglect. In addition, it had been coated with wheat paste and Japanese rice paper to preserve it, which must now be removed.

“There’s a little bit of mold on it,” Millen said. “I’m sure some of the pigments need to be replaced, but the conservator said it can be saved. It can be restored.”

The Washington Crossing Park Association is raising $60,000 to save the Harding mural, which this time will go in a new visitor center being built for the 250th anniversary of the nation’s founding in 2026. Designers of the structure at Washington Crossing State Park have assured that the painting – once seen with pride by thousands of Trenton moviegoers – is now getting a permanent home.

“As a historian, there are 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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