Forget Santa Claus. The Greater Trenton/Princeton region has another guy who has been coming to town on Christmas for centuries: George Washington.

George — or someone standing in for him in full uniform — will be in the area on Christmas Day to recreate his historically famous Christmas 1776 trip across the Delaware River to take on the British forces in Trenton and Princeton.

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M. Dickenson Ayer's statue of Washington built for the Philadelphia Centennial and now standing in the Mill Hill neighborhood.

He will also be in the hearts and minds of those participating in Trenton’s Patriots Week when George’s battles in Trenton will be remembered with tours, talks, and time watching reenactors at the Old Barracks where the Hessians once slept snug.

But after the musket fire smoke fades, the battle and Washington’s presence in Trenton and elsewhere seems to get lost in the daily shuffle — despite his ubiquitous but taken-for-granted presence in area art work and memorials

Meanwhile, as local officials elsewhere are drumming up visitors by capitalizing on Washington’s connection to the area, those leading the City of Trenton as well as the entire Greater Trenton area keep missing the boat on telling the world that Washington did more the sleep here — his winning gamble to take the towns gave new breath to a gasping revolution.

Now, if Thomas Edison University State University in downtown Trenton has its way, there will be even less George — in a big way.

TESU is set on selling one of the city’s longstanding cultural treasures: N.C. Wyeth’s painting “Reception to Washington on April 21, 1789, at Trenton On His Way To New York to Assume the Duties of the Presidency Of the United States.”

The 17-foot-tall by 12-foot-wide oil-on-canvas mural was commissioned by First Mechanics National Bank in 1930 and continued being part of the downtown landscape until the last bank that owned the building, Wells Fargo, left for the suburbs and donated the painting to TESU.

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"Reception to Washington on April 21, 1789, at Trenton On His Way To New York to Assume the Duties of the Presidency Of the United States" by N.C. Wyeth, oil on canvas.

The idea was that the painting would stay where it designed to be: West State Street in downtown Trenton. But TESU seems to be on a treasure hunt and sees big gold in the big painting.

However, others wish the college officials would see the bigger picture and see the people of Trenton on a losing side.

“The Trenton Historical Society stands committed behind their stance of asking Thomas Edison State University not to sell one of Trenton’s great treasures, N.C. Wyeth’s monumental painting of George Washington’s reception at Trenton on his inaugural journey in 1789,” says THS vice president Karl Flesch, who helped provide the public notice that led to TESU buy George some time by adopting a resolution to drop its sale date of January 21, 2023.

Flesch, who is also the president of the Trenton City Museum, adds, “While Wells Fargo’s gift agreement stipulated that TESU could not sell N.C. Wyeth’s masterwork for a period of three years, TESU has been waiting with bated breath for this period to expire so that it can flog the painting to the highest bidder and shamelessly monetize one of the city’s greatest cultural and historical assets. Hiding behind a deliberately shortsighted interpretation of its own mission statement, the University’s leadership appears disingenuous. “

“While it may well be within TESU’s legal right to sell the painting, choosing that path will break faith with those who worked to secure Wells Fargo’s benevolent gift and, more broadly, with the public and the people of Trenton. It is always disheartening to hear that a public entity has failed the public’s trust.”

Additionally, he notes that during the TESU December Board meeting “it was reported that the university had a $875,000 budget deficit, but the university had reserves to get them through a rainy day and they were in good shape to weather the storm.”

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A needlework depicting the same scene shown in Wyeth's painting.

They also noted that recruitment was down and were looking for money to turn that tide.

However, in a city looking for a positive tide to metaphorically lift all boats, it is time for all Trenton cultural forces and resources to rally and start a tourist revolution by using the American Revolution as a full-time attraction.

One can easily see it starting by helping to enhance awareness of the historically important Old Barracks.

The place that housed the Hessians who lost the Battle of Trenton, the Barracks was also almost lost to Trenton at the start of the 20th century until a group of smart women figured out that it needed be saved.

And while Washington currently gets whacked for participating in then common but still abhorrent practice of slavery, he is part of our collective history and has the ability to attract visitors who will also be carrying pictures of the first president in their wallets.

One way to increase the presence of Washington is to recall that the Wyeth painting is bookended to another large image of Washington down West State Street at the New Jersey State Museum.

There on the second floor, famed American artist Thomas Eakins' bronze mural of Washington Crossing the Delaware is displayed amidst a collection of images of Washington on various small art works — including a framed needlepoint depicting the same scene that Wythe painted — and decorative objects created by artists employed by Trenton ceramic companies.

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Thomas Eakins' bronze mural of Washington Crossing the Delaware.

Elsewhere on West State Street one can spot Washington’s image on the doors of the former Mechanics Bank, in the stained glass skylight in the New Jersey State House Annex, and even spot the 13-foot-tall statue of General Washington created by American sculptor William O'Donovan atop the Trenton Battle Monument — a closed tower with broken elevator owned by the State of New Jersey.

And not too far away in the Mill Hill district is the statue of Washington crossing the Delaware that M. Dickenson Ayer created in Florence for the Philadelphia Centennial. It was later brought to Trenton by civic-minded individuals who understood the importance of the Washington-Trenton connection.


The Battle Monument in downtown Princeton.

Yet, the capital city isn’t the only place that can claim Washington. Princeton had its own Washington battle a few days after Trenton that was memorialized in Princeton University’s painting “George Washington at the Battle of Princeton” by Charles Willson Peale (who actually fought in the battle). And American sculptor Frederick William MacMonnies’s “Princeton Battle Monument” by the municipal building features Washington front and center.

Combine the above with the presence of Rockingham in Kingston, where Washington lived for several months; the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Washington Crossing state parks, with the latter’s visitor center housing an official replica of 19th century German artist Emmanuel Leutze’s monumental painting of “Washington Crossing the Delaware”; the life size sculpture of the crossing outside the Washington Crossing Inn, the fact that the creator of the dollar bill image of George lived in Bordentown, and the small monuments and images that pop up all over the region, one gets a glimmer of the potential of highlighting George to attract visitors throughout the year — that is if the board and administration of TESU and state and community leaders can see the big picture rather than try to sell it.

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