When Public Art Becomes a Hot Potato

City Hall Plaza - Muhlenberg Statue, January 10, 1913 (PhillyHistory.org)

City Hall Plaza – Muhlenberg Statue, photographed January 10, 1913 (PhillyHistory.org)

In a day of “impressive” and “picturesque” celebrations, and “probably the most elaborate demonstration ever undertaken by the Germans of this city, Philadelphians unveiled a monument to Major General Peter Muhlenberg, Colonial Preacher and Revolutionary hero, statesman and scholar, on the south plaza of City Hall.”

“Preceded by a monster parade,” with “detachments of marines from League Island, cadet corps, regiments of the National Guard of Pennsylvania and other military bodies, their arms and flags glistening in the sunlight, the ceremonies attracted more than thirty thousand persons as spectators.”

The highlight of the dedication on October 6, 1910 took place when orator, Judge William H. Staake, recalled the dramatic scene from 1776 in the Virginia country church. The Pennsylvania-born preacher, Peter Muhlenberg, in his customary black robe delivered what at first appeared “his usual Sunday sermon” concluding: “There is a time for all things. A time to preach and a time to fight. And now is a time to fight!” And with those words he removed his preachers’ gown—the same gown held aloft by Judge Staake as he related the account— to reveal an officers uniform. So inspiring was Muhlenberg’s transformation, the story goes, that he then and there recruited 300 troops for the American cause.

Heck of a story. But it’s not really true.

Peter Muhlenberg was a minister. And the gown is for real. And Muhlenberg did bid his congregation farewell before leaving to serve as an officer in Washington’s army. But an embellishing, enthusiastic descendant, Henry Augustus Muhlenberg, added his own hyperbole in 1849:

“A breathless stillness brooded over the congregation. Deliberately pulling off the gown, which had thus far covered his martial figure, [Muhlenberg] stood before them a girded warrior; and descending from the pulpit, ordered the drums at the church door to beat for recruits. …  His audience, excited in the highest degree by the impassioned words which had fallen from his lips, flocked around him, eager to be ranked among his followers. Old men were seen bringing forward their children, wives their husbands, and widowed mothers their sons, sending them under his paternal care to fight the battles of their country.”

Tablet on Muhlenberg Statue, January 10, 1913. (PhillyHistory.org)

Tablet on Muhlenberg Statue, photographed January 10, 1913. (PhillyHistory.org)

Originally popular among new German arrivals hoping to prove their patriotism, this account became known as the “Muhlenberg Myth” to be adopted and defended or mocked and debunked. The provocatively titled Liars for Jesus: The Religious Right’s Alternate Version of American History dissected and disproved the story. In 2007, PBS’s History Detectives produced a segment confirming its myth status.

For reasons other than historical inaccuracy—and other than the rising queasiness celebrating a German-American War Hero in the midst of America’s engagement in the First World War—city officials removed J. Otto Schweizer’s Muhlenberg statue within a few years of the unveiling. This and other statues (John Christian Bullitt, Joseph Leidy, Stephen Girard and President William McKinley) were in the way of the Broad Street Subway construction project.

“Anti-German sentiment does not enter into the removal of the Peter Muhlenberg statue, read the Inquirer headline on October 10, 1918, the day after the statue’s departure. “There is enough hysteria going the rounds, without our adding to it,” offered a city official. The plaza around City Hall “seems to have been a favorite dumping ground for statues in the past, but we expect to use them now to adorn our Parkway” or perhaps “along the new road to Hog Island” where U.S. Naval ships were being launched as fast as they were built. That location might be a “fitting place” for Muhlenberg, the official suggested. After all, wouldn’t “the likeness of that famous German who fought in the Revolutionary War… inspire Hog Islanders and other Americans to make greater efforts to defeat the Germans?”

Sounds more like exile.

The war years proved difficult for many German-Americans and for German-American statuary in Philadelphia. Only one year earlier, the installation of a long-planned statue honoring Francis Daniel Pastorius, one of the founders of Germantown, had been postponed indefinitely. That artwork remained in storage until the war faded into memory.

As it turned out, Major General Peter Muhlenberg wasn’t exiled to Hog Island. His statue appeared for a time on Reyburn Plaza until the construction of the Municipal Services Building began in 1961. It remained in storage before landing at its current—and perhaps final location—behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

[Sources from the Inquirer include: “Monster Parade Precedes Unveiling at City Hall,” October 7, 1910; “Would Move Statues – Mayor Favors Placing Plaza Memorials on Parkway,” July 13, 1916; “Muhlenburg Removal Not Anti-German Act,” May 10, 1918.]

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Categories

  • Archives