Battle brewing over Valley Forge museum

Critics voice concerns over nonhistoric extras.

Posted: June 29, 2007

Another battle is brewing over the future of private, undeveloped land inside Valley Forge National Historical Park.

This one has the proposed American Revolution Center taking hits from the National Park Service, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the Sierra Club.

The fight erupted over what opponents consider the center's overly ambitious plans for the museum and other facilities on private land within the congressionally designated boundaries of the park.

The critics support construction of the 130,000-square-foot museum, the first commemorating the Revolutionary War. It is expected to house about 15,000 rare documents, artifacts, weapons and other materials.

But the nonhistoric extras raise concerns: a 3.5-story hotel and conference center, with restaurant and liquor license; a 99-bed dormitory; a campground; an ATM, and a day-care center for visitors and employees.

It is all intended to create a "destination" for tourists and scholars, Thomas M. Daly, president and CEO of the center, told Lower Providence planners Wednesday night. "We want to give people an opportunity to hold conferences and stay overnight." The proposed amenities are also aimed at helping the center accomplish its educational mission.

Park Superintendent Mike Caldwell wasn't impressed.

"ATMs, campgrounds, conference centers, hotels - they are all utterly unrelated to the museum," he said. "There are other commercial areas where they can go. There is only one Valley Forge."

The critics won this round. The planning commission voted against the ordinance that would have cleared the way for the project. The next stop is the township supervisors.

This is not the first time the same parties have squared off over a development proposal on the park's north side. In 2001, Toll Bros. Inc. proposed building 62 luxury homes within the park's boundary, generating outrage across the country.

Three years later, the park service quietly bought the land from Toll for $8.5 million.

The Wednesday night meeting was the first chance the public had to see the museum's plans, and many were not happy with what they heard.

Resident Albert Dilworth asked why the center, a nonprofit organization, needed commercial zoning. "It sounds like a profit organization to me," he said.

The facilities would be located on the park's northern side, on 78 acres along Pawlings Road in Lower Providence Township, next to St. Gabriel's Hall. Funding for the $150 million project has been pledged from the state, county and private sources.

The center has a contract with the Philadelphia Archdiocese to buy the land, a step it took after it was unable to come to an agreement with the park service to build the museum near the Welcome Center.

Historians say the commissary for the 1777-1778 winter encampment at Valley Forge was located on the north side, which includes this site. It was also the staging area for the departure of the Continental Army in June 1778.

But the land has never undergone a thorough archaeological analysis, say park officials, and the proposed construction could prevent that, leading to "devastating effects" on the historic property.

The National Parks Conservation Association said it found the plans "deeply troubling." And Richard Wolf, representing the Sierra Club, said the land was "sacred ground" and suggested the museum be built inside the historic Walnut Hill barn nearby. He also called for a "grace period" to give the park service time to buy the land.

Lower Providence supervisors will hold a public hearing on the proposed ordinance on July 19 at the township building.


Contact staff writer Nancy Petersen at 610-701-7602 or npetersen@phillynews.com.

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