This discovery sent her down an investigative rabbit hole to locate the large painting that once adorned the old Taylor Opera House in Trenton, NJ Completed by Harding in 1921, the mural, titled “Washington Crossing the Delaware”, had disappeared when the building was demolished in 1971.
Millen’s book, “Washington Crossing,” co-authored with Robert W. Sands Jr., examines footage of the general’s boat trip down an ice-choked river just before the pivotal Battle of Trenton in the American Revolution, including including the famous – if somewhat inaccurate – paintings by Emanuel Leutze, one of which is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The book also focuses on the work of preserving this moment in history by two museums separated by the Delaware River: one at Washington Crossing Historic Park in Pennsylvania and the other at Washington Crossing State Park in New Jersey, where Millen once served as a volunteer and founding director of the Washington Crossing Park Association.
As first reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Millen was checking archives for artwork and old photos when she spotted the single sentence about the missing mural in a state report. Harding’s name jumped out at him. He served as a combat illustrator in both World Wars and created murals for many government buildings in the 1930s. His drawings and paintings of Americans in combat have been displayed in major group exhibitions at museums, including the New York MOMA. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts held a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1957, two years before his death.
The artist had designed the mural to hang in the former Taylor Opera House, which was being converted into a cinema and vaudeville theater in 1921. The building was originally constructed in 1867 by John Taylor, who made his fortune as the founder of Taylor Pork Roll (known as Taylor Ham in North Jersey and Pork Roll in South Jersey).
Harding’s dramatic painting showed Washington mid-crossing the Delaware River just before surprising Hessian troops at Trenton on Christmas Day 1776. The commander of the Continental Army is shown holding his tricorn cap as he stood amidships, surrounded by soldiers. and sailors pushing back the ice floes.
As Millen dug deeper, she learned that the painting, measuring nearly 16ft by 10ft, was supposed to have been the centerpiece of a new museum in New Jersey State Park, which was due to open. for the bicentennial of America in 1976.
Except Millen never recalled seeing the artwork at the visitor center museum. when she volunteered there. “I’m getting old enough to think, ‘That was there and I forgot it was there? “said the 65-year-old historian.
But Millen had not forgotten. She found an old article that told what happened: The mural was too big for the new structure, so it was never displayed there. Instead, it was saved by volunteer restorers as the old opera house was demolished and then stored at Ringwood State Park in New Jersey, located about 80 miles over the New York state border.
“I contacted the park and asked if he was still there,” Millen said. “One of the historians went to the basement of a building and found it rolled up next to the Christmas decorations, still on the trestles 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. “It drove me crazy,” she laughed. “It has been in the basement for over 50 years. I didn’t think I could do more damage to him. »
Finally, she was able to see him. A restorer 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 now needs to be removed.
“There’s a bit of mold on it,” Millen said. “I’m sure some of the pigment will need to be replaced, but the restorer said it was salvageable. It can be restored.
The Washington Crossing Park Association is raising $60,000 to save Harding’s mural, which this time will go to a new visitor center being built for the 250th anniversary of the founding of the nation in 2026. The designers of the park’s structure d Washington State Crossing gave assurances that the painting – once watched with pride by thousands of Trenton moviegoers – will now have a permanent home.
“As a historian, there are a lot of things on my list of things I want to do,” Millen said. “Saving this fresco is the icing on the cake. I’m excited. Can’t wait for the new museum to open to finally see it on display.”