If you hear the sound of firepower echoing across the banks of the Delaware River on Sunday, March 10, do not panic. The sounds you hear will not be coming from enemies attacking the area but from reenactors celebrating the new visitor center at Washington Crossing Historic Park in Pennsylvania. Its doors will open to the public with a volley of muskets and cannon fire.
“We are literally opening with a bang,” Joan Hauger said with a smile during a recent interview about her role as the Washington Crossing site administrator for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) and a preparer for the center’s opening day activities.
Visiting from Washington, D.C., is the Old Guard. Dressed in 18th century uniform, the 3rd Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army starts the day’s events with a flag raising ceremony and a fife and drum core performance.
“I’m very excited that the Old Guard will help us celebrate the new center,” said Hauger, who completed her graduate work in museum education at the College of William and Mary and has been a museum professional since 1987.
PHMC and the Friends of Washington Crossing Park have worked together for several years to open the new center, Hauger said.
“It will be great to have a world class center for people who come here from all over the world,” said FWCP president John Godzieba, who performs the role of General Washington at reenactment events.
The new center, built from the existing structure from the late 1950s, adds 3,200 square feet to the building making the total size 19,000 square feet.
One of the key improvements to the center is a section of glass panels that provide a wide view of the river and landscape, blending the interior space with the outdoor space.
“We maximized the view of the river,” said Morris Zimmerman, the center’s project architect and principal of BWA Architecture + Planning. The firm has been involved with the project for more than 10 years and worked with former site administrator Doug Miller.
The center also includes a renovated auditorium and new exhibition space. Exhibits on opening day will feature artwork and relics from the period during and after the Revolutionary War. Objects include a strategy letter from General Washington to Colonel John Cadwalader, whose family name is known by art and history lovers through its connection with Cadwalader Park in Trenton. Also on view are period military weapons and a sign painted by important 19th century American artist and Bucks County resident Edward Hicks for the bridge at Taylorsville, the former name of the park site.
One of the very popular artworks, hung in the auditorium, is the iconic picture of Washington crossing the Delaware River, painted in Germany by German-American painter Emmanuel Leutze. The picture is a full scale print taken from the original oil painting displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The work measures over 12 feet high by 21 feet wide.
Zimmerman said he remembers the sense of awe he felt the first time he saw the painting at the old visitor center.
While the image inspires many visitors, it is often criticized for its inaccuracies. Leutze painted the scene in 1851, more than 70 years after the crossing.
The PHMC website summarizes the issues raised by critics: The painting shows Washington and the troops crossing the Delaware River in daylight. There is a clear view of a vessel surrounded by ice caps. It resembles a rowboat and features a full view of Washington standing. It is believed that the some of the passengers represented included the future president James Monroe holding a Betsy Ross version of the flag, and an African-American, Prince Whipple, rowing the boat.
Critics point out that the crossing took place after sunset in stormy conditions in a Durham boat with sides that come above the waistline of most adults. The river that Leutze used as a model was the Rhine, not the Delaware. The ice formations would probably have been larger and more threatening than the ones in the painting. It is also unlikely that the Betsy Ross version of the flag was the one that would have been carried in the boat.
In spite of its inaccuracies, the Leutze painting continues to inspire people today. The PHMC writer concludes, “Certainly, a small group of men, banded together to fight a common cause is a lasting impression from the image.”
While the picture does not provide a real time photographic view of the event, it conveys a bigger idea, say historians and even its critics. The idea behind the painting is what draws people to the picture and keeps it in their memories. At least that is true for Zimmerman.
“I remember the impact the painting had on me as a child. Today, my son is in the sixth grade, and I’m looking forward to taking him to the center to see the painting,” Zimmerman said.
For Hauger, the impact of the painting is interconnected with the impact she hopes the new center will have on visitors.
The mission for the new center, she said, is to “help people learn about Washington and his crossing of the Delaware, and the 10 crucial days that created the turning point of the revolution. And to help understand the sacrifices people made to establish our country. It is a place for people to come and learn about history in an interactive way.”
“People who come to the center can learn the details of the revolutionary war, and that’s important,” Hauger says.
“But there’s a bigger idea; if you have vision and a dedication to achieving something worthwhile, with some risk those dreams can be accomplished. Washington and the Continental Army had their backs against the wall. The patriot cause looked like it had been lost. In the dead of the winter, Washington did something different, he continued to fight even though armies generally didn’t fight in winter back then, crossing an ice choked river in the middle of the night during a Nor’easter. It shows what can be done with daring and determination in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. You just might win and realize your dream. This was the turning point,” she said.
Like the Leutze painting, the new center has had its share of admirers and critics, as well as practical and public scrutiny.
Over the years, some town officials and residents have voiced concern over potential impacts of the center on natural surroundings and the environment, and building costs. The structural addition to the existing building and new parking required the elimination of 19 trees and bushes.
“It took time to complete the design and permit phase in order to meet local, state, and federal regulations,” Hauger said. “There were a lot of environmental requirements. We’re on the banks of the Delaware. There were permits to be approved, i’s to dot, and t’s to cross.”
To mitigate the impact of tree removals, PHMC and Lockheed Martin planted 2,400 seedlings in the park in 2011.
In terms of environmental impact, the new center is designed to heat and cool the building with little or no negative effect on the environment. Both Hauger and Zimmerman said they were happy about the center’s open loop geothermal heating and air conditioning system because it doesn’t burn fossil fuels and will save money on energy bills. “We’re very proud of our green footprint,” Hauger said.
PHMC and the park’s friends group have been working on the new center for over 10 years and have been operating out of trailers for several years since the old center was closed because of a leaking roof, mold, and other problems.
Serving visitors is what the new center is all about, said Hauger. The new parking lot includes a handicap accessible area and a drop off point for tour busses and vans.
Hauger, who now lives in Northeast Philadelphia, the same area where she grew up, attributes her can-do attitude to her parents who imbued her with the ability to deal with challenging situations, to be an independent thinker, and to take pride in her work. Her dad, a cloth cutter in the Philadelphia clothing industry, and her mom, a dedicated homemaker while she was growing up, insisted that she go to college but told her that what she studied was up to her.
Several organizations have contributed to the center’s exhibitions, including the new American Revolution Center at Independence Mall, Center City Philadelphia; Mercer Museum of the Bucks County Historical Society; and the Pennsylvania Historical Society, and the Harrisburg office of PHMC.
Volunteers with the Friends of Washington Crossing Park have been key players in the March 10 opening and will continue to work on events throughout the year.
Looking forward to the center’s opening, Hauger said that working from the trailers has not so bad. “But there was an exception. In the winter of 2011, the pipes froze and we had to use the bathroom in an auxiliary building. We had to walk over snow and ice to get there.”
And why not? Crossing through snow and ice is something one expects at Washington Crossing Historic Park.
Charter Day Opening Celebration, 1112 River Road, Washington Crossing, PA. Sunday, March 10, 1:30 p.m. Free. 215-493-4076 or www.ushistory.org/washingtoncrossing/index.htm. Other upcoming activities: Sheep Shearing, Friday, April 26; Brewfest, Saturday, May 11; Memorial Day Observance, Monday, May 27; and the Christmas Day Crossing, Wednesday, December 25. washingtoncrossingpark.org.