Museum stages dress rehearsal for Gen. George Washington’s tent

The coming Museum of the American Revolution has not yet broken ground at Third and Chestnut streets in Old City — construction is not expected to be finished until 2017 — but you can get a sneak peek of one of its major exhibits.

Gen. George Washington’s field tent, from which he commanded the Colonial army during the Revolutionary War, is now set up inside the old Independence Hall Visitors Center in Philadelphia. The public will be allowed inside for a few hours on Friday.

The original artifact is in storage, but conservators and engineers are spending most of this week erecting a historically accurate replica of the tent inside the empty brick building. It’s a test run for the tent’s support structure, which will ultimately hold up the original.

The tent had been on display at Valley Forge until 10 years ago, when it was taken down for conservation.

The tent and marquee cover an area about 23 feet long and 14 feet wide, comprising three small chambers — a central office, a half-circle sleeping chamber for the general, and a small area for luggage and his enslaved African American valet, William Lee, who traveled with Washington for the duration of the war.

Compared with the tiny 7-foot wedge tents shared by six or seven soldiers at a time, Washington’s may seem like a castle.

“This is actually fairly humble,” said Mark Hutter, senior tailor of Colonial Williamsburg who has overseen the construction of the replica tent. “If you consider Washington’s peers, Napoleon’s marquee with a blue and white exterior with multicolor trims, a printed-cotton interior, a leopard-patterned rug … the thing about Washington’s decision for his tent is that it’s really fairly democratic.”

This week, Hutter and a team of historians and engineers are testing out a new substructure of umbrella-like metal ribs and canvas over which the original tent will drape, to protect the 235-year-old canvas from rope tension.

“One of the challenges is to keep the drapey effect of the fabric,” said Scott Stephenson, the museum’s collection director. “This system — as far as we know no one has done this — gives you the same draping effect. It looks very realistic, but would not put tension on the object.”

Washington had this tent made in 1778, probably while encamped at Valley Forge, one of the bleakest times of the war. Washington used the tent until the ultimate victory at York. This is where the general made decisions — sometimes under great duress — that ultimately gave birth to the United States.

“Even when Washington was quartered in a home or public building, he always had a tent nearby, a private sanctuary for him to read dispatches, write dispatches, everyone knew not to disturb him in the tent,” said Stephenson, hunched inside the tent (at 6 foot 3, he is about as tall as Washington was). “You think about the emotions that were felt right where we’re standing, under this tent.”

On Friday, the replica will be open to the public very briefly, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. It will be used for education and traveling programs. The original artifact will be permanently erected on its own stage inside the museum once it is built.

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