Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: July 1986 Volume 24 Number 3, Pages 83–90

The National Washington Memorial "Cathedral"

Bob Goshorn

Page 83

The Reverend Dr. W. Herbert Burk's project to establish at Valley Forge a Washington Memorial to commemorate the religious character of General George Washington began with a sermon he gave on the morning of Washington's Birthday in 1903, when he delivered his discourse on "Washington, the Churchman" at the All Saints' Church in Norristown, of which he was then the rector.

"Would that we might," he observed, "rear a wayside chapel, a fit memorial of the Church's most honored son, to be the Nation's Bethel for all the days to come, where the American patriot might kneel in quest of that strength to make all honorable his citizenship here below, and prove his claim to that above!"

That afternoon the first $100 was contributed to the project, by the boys and girls of the Sunday School. The sermon was also published in the Norristown Daily Herald, and received wide acclaim by the press throughout the country.

Two parcels of land at Valley Forge were offered for the project, one by Mr. and Mrs. John Hallman, the other by Mr. and Mrs. I. Heston Todd and Mr. and Mrs. Charles Todd. With the Rt. Rev. Alexander Mackey-Smith, the Bishop Coadjutor of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, Dr. Burk selected the latter as the place for the proposed chapel.

On June 19 -- Evacuation Day, the one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the departure of the American troops from Valley Forge -- the property was conveyed and the cornerstone laid for the chapel building.

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The principal address, "The Christianity of Washington", was delivered by the Rev. C. Ellis Stephens, the rector of Christ Church in Philadelphia. About 200 clergymen and choristers took part in the ceremonies.

The design for the chapel, a stone building in Gothic style, was planned by Milton B. Medary, Jr. Commenting on his concept, Warren P. Laird, of the Department of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, noted, "The chapel, while pure in historic character and fine in proportions, has an expression of dignity, repose and strength. ... In architectural quality it is scholarly and tasteful to an unusual degree and possesses real charm and distinction."

In the meantime, a temporary small frame "barn-board" chapel was erected in the wooded area to the rear of the site for the Chapel. It was first used for services that fall, on September 27, 1903, with the Rev. Herbert J. Cook, the Dean of the Convocation at Norristown, giving the sermon. In June of the following year President Theodore Roosevelt, having heard of the project while visiting with Philander C, Knox at his nearby farm, spoke at the little frame chapel on Evacuation Day, calling the attention of the American people to the work. (It was, incidentally, the first time a president of the United States visited Valley Forge.)

Although progress on the project was slow, eight months later, on Washington's Birthday in 1905, the first service was held in the partially-built new Chapel, a temporary roof of pine boards stretching over stone walls still only about a third of their projected height. The sermon on this occasion was delivered by the Rt. Rev. Robert Atkinson Gibson, Bishop of Virginia. By September the following year services were held regularly in the still unfinished stone Chapel, with the temporary frame building in the woods used only for Sunday School.

The Chapel actually was not completed until 1922. By 1913 over $28,000 had been spent on it, but the project was in financial difficulty, with an indebtedness of more than $10,000. In February of that year the Vestrymen officially appealed to the Rt. Rev. Thomas J. Garland, now the Bishop for the Diocese, to organize a committee to raise funds to pay off the indebtedness and complete the construction. After money had been raised to clear the debt, a committee consisting of Bishop Garland, Bishop Philip M. Rhinelander, and Dr. Charles C. Harrison, the provost of the University of Pennsylvania, was formed to complete the work. At the same time, the land on which the Chapel was located was transferred to the committee, as Trustees, "to avoid alienation" and to be, in turn, transferred to the Trustee of the Diocese upon completion of the building and its memorials. (It was an agreement, incidentally, that was to cause considerable strain in the relations between Dr. Burk and the committee and the Diocese over the next fifteen years and longer.)

During the next decade some $278,000 was raised towards the completion of the Chapel, of which Dr. Harrison is credited with having raised more than $260,000 himself.

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In March of 1925 the property was conveyed to the Diocese, and a Church Foundation created to administer endowments received for memorials or for maintenance and repair. On numerous occasions Dr. Burk complained that this arrangement had taken control of his parish from him. (In one letter from Dr. Burk to Bishop Garland, in February 1926, described by the Bishop as a "blasting letter", for example, Dr. Burk referred to a communication he had received from Dr. Harrison as "the latest bull of the lay pope chosen by you and to whom you have committed the activities of my parish."!)

The completed Chapel had seats for only 125 people, not counting the choir. Although he had originally suggested only "a wayside chapel", within a short time Dr. Burk felt that the Chapel was too small. "Last summer, Sunday after Sunday," he wrote to Bishop Garland on January 14, 1926, "people stood in the aisles throughout the service and they could not even gain admittance to the Chapel. In other words, the Chapel is too small for the ordinary Summer Sunday congregation, its popularity is steadily increasing, and the local population is growing rapidly. As Rector of the Parish and fully informed on these points ... I urge careful consideration of the entire subject ..."

But enlargement of Chapel was really not practical -- nor desired by the Diocese. In fact, some members of the Trustees had already expressed concern over Dr. Burk's overall development of the Washington Memorial, which included, in addition to the Chapel itself, a Patriots' Hall (now the museum of the Valley Forge Historical Society, which Dr. Burk also founded), a Washington Memorial Library, the Cloister of the Colonies, the Porch of the Allies, and a Thanksgiving Tower. Both Dr. Harrison and Medary had, in correspondence, been openly critical of some of the items in the museum in the Patriots' Hall, Dr. Harrison describing them as "a great blot on the exquisite Chapel and its surroundings".

An opportunity came in the following year for Dr. Burk to develop plans for the even larger Memorial and bigger Church that he sought.

Adjacent to the Chapel property, in a grove of about fifteen acres, was the home of the 82-year old Sarah Swift Zulich. Shortly after noon on Palm Sunday 1927, the 18-room mansion in which she and her two daughters lived was set afire by a spark from the chimney. More than 1000 volunteer firemen from four fire companies -- Bridgeport, Phoenixville, Paoli and Malvern -- battled the blaze for four hours, clearing the underbrush around the mansion to keep the flames from spreading to the Chapel. But a lack of water, coupled with a stiff wind, made it impossible to save the mansion, garage, and servants' quarters. On June 7 the 15-acre property was conveyed to the Rector, Church Wardens and Vestrymen of the Washington Memorial Chapel by Winifred and Amy Zulich for $15,000.

Now Dr. Burk had a place suitable for the expansion of his Memorial. And it was also on land that was the property of the Chapel Corporation, not the Diocese! Across from the original campsite and parade ground, looking down on the Schuylkill River, with the wooded hills of Valley Forge in the background, it made an ideal location.

Page 86

Early the next year his plan to erect what he later described as "a House of Prayer large enough for all who gather here [at Valley Forge], beautiful enough to inspire all who enter, and great enough to be the Nation's symbol of thankfulness to God" was announced in the newspapers.

Ground breaking exercises for the structure took place on February 22, 1928. "The historic sod of Valley Forge, consecrated 150 years ago by the heroic sacrifices of the Continental Army, was broken again yesterday," it was reported the following day in the Daily Herald, "for the $10,000,000 Washington National Memorial Church before a reverent crowd of 5,000 pilgrims of the national shrine." The first spadeful of earth "for the magnificent cathedral" was turned by Dr. Burk. He and Theodore Lane Bean, Esq., a member of the Valley Forge Park Commission and of the Vestry of the Washington Memorial chapel, were the principal speakers.

"On Washington's Birthday," Dr. Burk wrote six days later, in letters appealing for funds for the project, "we broke ground for the National Washington Memorial Church. This service formed a part of our great nation-wide commemoration of Washington. But before the spade touched the frozen sod of Valley Forge over one thousand American Patriots had sent contributions in sums from One Dollar to Five Hundred Dollars to help built this noble House of God in memory of Washington and the Patriots of the Revolution. The work so happily begun must go forward."

On April 10 it was reported in the Daily Herald that the congregation of the Chapel had also formally approved "Dr. Burk's plans for Washington Memorial Cathedral".

Four months after the ground-breaking exercises, on the 150th anniversary of Evacuation Day and exactly twenty-five years after the cornerstone had been laid for the Chapel, on June 19, 1928 the cornerstone was laid for the new proposed Church. The ceremonies were conducted by the Masons -- the Right Worshipful Grand Lodge of the Most Ancient and Honorable Fraternity of Free and Accepted Masons of Pennsylvania -- in recognition that when Washington laid the cornerstone for the Capitol in 1793 he did so as the Grand Master of a Masonic Lodge. In addition to the laying of the cornerstone by J. Williston Smith, the Right Worshipful Grand Master, in his ceremonial garb and top hat, there was another address by Theodore Lane Bean, the presentation and planting of a Washington Elm by Mrs. James H. Dorsey, and the singing of "Onward Christian Soldiers", "America", and "The Star-Spangled Banner" by the 10,000 estimated to be in attendance. (It was perhaps an omen that during the ceremonies a terrific thunderstorm broke, causing a rush for the Chapel, where Bean gave his "oration".)

On the cover of the four-page commemorative program for the occasion was an artist's conception of the proposed Memorial Church, an edifice capable of seating 5,000 persons and modeled after York Minster. John C. Cornelius Jr., described as "particularly fitted" for the project "not only by his association with the architect of the Chapel [for practically the entire period of its construction], but also by his studies of York Minster in England, the norm of the Church", had been unaminously selected as the architect.

Page 87

Artist's conception of The National Washington Memorial Church

Dr. Burk's plans for the Washington Memorial Church were more fully outlined in a brochure he published on Washington's Birthday the following year. "York Minster," he wrote, "was selected as the type of structure best suited to the site and to the needs of Valley Forge. Its breadth of nave is just what is needed at Valley Forge to accommodate the crowds of patriots who assemble for worship and for inspiration. Its dignity,' its solemnity, and its grandeur are most impressive and such as are most befitting the atmosphere of Valley Forge. ... The long nave, with the choir and sanctuary beyond it gives one the sense of space. One feels instantly that this is the place of peace. It is 'so lofty, so wide, so simple, so truly grand,' that it represents better than anything else, our sense of the Republic, as it stands after a century and a half of building ... [A]bove the worshippers will be the roof of vaulted stone, springing from the clustered columns."

Page 88

The 410-feet long building was to face towards the south "where the camp ground of the American patriots was located", with a "massive central tower dominating the entire structure and facing the four points of the compass as symbolic of our wide-spread nation ..."

(So lofty, so grand were the plans that the proposed edifice was repeatedly, and in error, described in the newspapers, as noted earlier, as a "cathedral" rather than as a church, despite the fact that only the seat of a bishop can properly be called a cathedral. In fact, it was even so described in the plot plans filed with Montgomery County!)

While the services were to be those of the Protestant Episcopal Church, it was to be a place where, as at the Chapel, "side by side Hebrews and Christians, Roman Catholics and Protestants worship and each feels at home in this House of Prayer for the American People".

The $10,000,000 needed for its construction was to be raised by public contributions. "Every American," Dr. Burk observed, "should count it a rare privilege to have some part in this great House of Prayer." Despite the fact that it took 800 years to complete York Minster, Dr. Burk suggested that "America, with its mechanics, and artists, its machinery and power, with its money and organization, can do a similar work in four years, if every American will do his or her part", and hoped to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Washington, on February 22, 1932, by the dedication of this Church.

His enthusiasm was not shared by Bishop Garland or the Diocese. In a typical letter in reply to early inquiries about the project, the Bishop pointed out, in January 1928, that he knew "nothing about Dr. Burk's proposition except what I have read in the newspaper clippings"; that in no case could Dr. Burk "build a cathedral, as in the Diocese we have our own Cathedral project"; and, finally, that he personally "could not recommend anyone to give money to Valley Forge for Church work unless it is given in trust to one of the Diocesan Corporations formed for the protection of property and funds". In another letter he observed, "This present project has not been authorized by the Diocese and the Diocese is giving it no financial backing whatever. ... The Chapel is a little gem ... It is a worthy shrine to Washington, and why anyone should be interested in erecting a large building on the adjoining site which was not part of the original design passes my comprehension." And when Dr. Burk, on the first of June, invited the Bishop to give the closing prayer and benediction at the forthcoming cornerstone laying ceremonies (suggesting "we ought to use Washington's Prayer for the United States on this occasion"), Bishop Garland replied that this communication was "the first I have received from you about the project" and that, "As Bishop of the Diocese I could not endorse any Clergyman in undertaking the erection of such an edifice on a lot adjoining one of our own Churches or using the name of a Chapel of the Episcopal Church or his official position as a Rector to advertise such a project".

Page 89

(In a letter the following March to Isaac R. Pennypacker, the chairman of the State's Valley Forge Park Commission, the Bishop was even more out spoken, wishing it to be known that he was "entirely adverse to the extension of Dr. Burk's activities ... to erect a 'cathedral'". "It never was, and is not," he was quoted as having explained, "the desire of the Diocese to have more at Valley Forge than a little shrine in the woods. There is no congregation there; nothing of which to make a large church. Were the present Chapel to be enlarged, it would take strength away from older congregations in the neighborhood." And in a letter to his brother at about the same time, he described the project as "an extremely foolish proposition".)

It did not appear to discourage Dr. Burk. In January 1929 he was granted a one-year leave of absence at full pay. The "vacation" marked the completion of eighteen years as Rector at Valley Forge, during which time he had preached more than 2,000 sermons, and delivered an even greater number of lectures and addresses. The leave enabled him to devote himself full time to the building of the Church.

Even before he published the previously mentioned brochure about the project, however, it narrowly missed what would have been a death blow-- not from the Church, but from the State. At the meeting of the State's Valley Forge Park Commission on February 13, 1929 Judge Richard H. Koch moved a resolution that the Commission condemn "All that certain piece of property ... which was conveyed by Winifred Zulich and Amy Zulich to the Rector, Church Wardens and Vestrymen of the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge, Pa. the deed dated June 7, 1927" as an addition to the park lands, the 1500 acres originally allotted for the park under the Act of 1893 establishing it not yet having been fully designated. The motion was seconded by Isaac Clothier, but by a 4 to 3 vote the resolution was "laid on the table". It was finally taken from the table at the October meeting of the Commission, but failed to pass by virtue of a 6 to 6 tie vote. (A service of celebration was held by the congregation on the following Sunday.)

But while the condemnation failed, none of this made it any easier for Dr. Burk to raise funds for the project. By late spring of 1929 only about $100,000 had been raised. Then, in the fall, came the start of the Depression. As Mrs. Burk later observed, "The depression setting in so soon after then, stopped all appeals."

Nonetheless, by the bicentennial of Washington's birth it was reported, "Already over a quarter of a million dollars in money and pledges have been secured, and every day American patriots make their contributions. "It was also noted that several special gifts had been received, for a stone pulpit (from the Daughters of the American Revolution), for the Lectern Bible, and for several of the pews especially designed for the Church by the architect. But the dedication of the National Washington Memorial Church was still a long way off on Washington's Birthday in 1932.

On June 30, 1933, just a little over a month after he had celebrated 40 years of service in the ministry, the Rev. W. Herbert Burk died at the age of 66. His dream for "the erection upon the hills of Valley Forge of a House of Prayer for the use of the American people" lived on for a few years, but finally it too died nine years later when, on June 29, 1942 the Valley Forge Park Commission condemned half of the property, adding 7.74 acres to the park land.

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In October its value was assessed at $23,000 plus interest, and on June 26, 1943 the land was formally conveyed by deed to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Also included was a statue of George Washington that was situated on the property. It was cast from the molds of the original in the Virginia State Capitol, the work of the French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon, who had made personal studies of Washington at Mount Vernon.

Actually, the cornerstone for the Church, a massive block of granite seven feet high, four feet wide, and almost three feet deep, is still standing, hidden in the woods about 300 yards to the northeast of the Chapel, north of the parking lot. It is no longer in an open field, as it was at the time it was laid, but is now surrounded by trees -- oaks, maples, sassafras -- some of them now eight or ten inches in diameter. The inscription on the stone is still clearly legible:

To the Glory of God
in Commemoration of the Evacuation
of Valley Forge
by Washington and the American Army
June 19, 1778 this Cornerstone is Laid
June 19, 1928 as the
First Stone of the National
Washington Memorial Church
a House of Prayer for the
American People and a Nation's Tribute
to Washington and the Patriots of the

It was both the first stone and the last stone of the National Washington Memorial Church that was never to be, and is now almost completely forgotten.



Archives of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania: correspondence of Bishop Garland, newspaper clippings

W. Herbert Burk: The National Washington Memorial Church 1929

- Guide to Valley Forge 1916

Eleanor H. S. Burk: In the Beginning at Valley Forge 1938

Historical Society of Montgomery County: miscellaneous newspaper clippings and brochures

Montgomery County Recorder of Deeds: Book 1072, p. 600

Valley Forge National Park: Minutes of the Valley Forge Park Commission of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania


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