UPPER MERION>>Being midway through a multimillion-dollar window restoration didn’t prevent the Washington Memorial Chapel from receiving some overdue recognition from a prestigious organization recently.
The landmark that stands on private land in Valley Forge has just been added to the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
As explained in a press release, the chapel is now listed as the Washington Memorial Chapel Historic District, a designation that includes the Washington Memorial Chapel and bell tower, as well as its cemetery and surrounding buildings, which include the chapel Cabin Shop and the Defenders’ Gate.
“The chapel’s beauty is known to most local residents and thousands of tourists who visit (Valley Forge National Historical Park) each year, but the listing raises its significance to the national level,” said Gardiner Pearson, president of the board of the Washington Memorial Heritage.
Founded in 1903 as a memorial to George Washington and the patriots who served in the American Revolution, the historic district consists of the 26-acre chapel property, which is entirely surrounded by Valley Forge National Historic Park.
Since its inception in 1903, it has been considered independent of the park, despite its location at the revered site of the winter encampment of 1777-1778, which its caretakers feel further enhances the significance of the stories told through its “magnificent art and architecture.”
Although public perception often links the chapel and the park, that was never the situation, noted the Rev. Roy Almquist, priest in charge at the chapel.
“There was 12-acre state park at Valley Forge when the chapel was founded,” Almquist said. “The chapel was established before the park took on its present meaning, or because (it became a) national park in 1976. While we have a close friendship and we assist each other whenever possible, there is no structural connection. The park is part of the Department of the Interior. The chapel is an independent congregation on its own private land.”
The process of being placed on the National Register was more than a decade in the making, Almquist allowed.
“It called for endless documentation and explanation of the chapel’s history, architectural uniqueness and community service. We had a consultant, Jane Dorechester, who was of essential help in leading us through the process. The designation means that we are one of very few officially recognized historical sites,” he said. “It is essential to get consideration for funding from the larger, more reputable agencies and foundations that are in a position to assist with historical preservation. If you are not on the NRHP roster, many will not consider you.”
The release indicated that a number of notables are among the contributors to the chapel’s art and architecture, including architect Milton Bennett Medary, who became well known for his mastery of the late Gothic Revival style; Thomas Sears, a landscape architect who designed the cemetery; Nicola D’Ascenzo, an Italian immigrant who created the acclaimed stained-glass windows; Edward Maene, a Belgian immigrant who completed the woodcarving for the choir, altar cross, pews and ceiling; Samuel Yellin, a Polish immigrant who cast the wrought-iron gates and other ironwork; and sculptors Alexander S. Calder, Franklin Simmons and Bela Pratt.
It has been frequently noted that Philadelphia was at the center of the Arts and Crafts Movement at the turn of the 20th century, and the Washington Memorial Chapel is said to represent the best of the genre.
Although he was neither an artist nor a craftsman, the chapel’s design concept and construction’s recognition has long been attributed to the vision of the chapel’s founder, the Rev. Dr. W. Herbert Burk.
With funding for the restoration of the chapel’s 13 stained-glass windows trickling in at its own pace, each window, which conveys a significant aspect of the building’s American heritage, is being given the proper attention in its own time.
“This is a project that will be years in the making,” noted Joe Beyer, chief designer of Beyer Studio, the Germantown-based restoration and design company handling the project.