It's a priceless artifact that played a major role in American independence.

The 15-by-20-foot oval marquee tent that served as George Washington's headquarters is being readied for public display, helped along by two Lancaster Countians.

Virginia Whalen of Lancaster, a fabric conservator, and Alex Stadel, a 2006 Hempfield High School graduate and structural engineer, are preparing this historic artifact for its central role in the yet-to-be built Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.

"It's an exciting yet daunting project, and a lot of fun," Whalen said. "I feel very fortunate to be part of it."

The tent, dubbed the "First Oval Office," was used by Washington as his headquarters and sleeping chamber from June 1775, when he took command of the Continental Army, until late 1783 after the British surrender at Yorktown.

Nine feet high the linen tent has two 5-foot-high doorways, meaning the 6-foot, 3-inch Washington had to stoop to enter or leave.

Washington not only slept here, but conducted top level strategy meetings with his officers — including the Marquis de Lafayette — and wrote letters to his family at Mount Vernon and to the Continental Congress.

After Washington's death in 1799, the carefully stored tent remained in the family until the Civil War, when it was in the possession of the Custis family, Washington's in-laws, whose stately mansion, Arlington, still stands in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1860, this was the home of Mary Custis Lee and her husband, Robert E. Lee, who became commander of the Confederate forces in the Civil War. When they were forced by the war to leave Arlington and its possessions, everything, including the tent, fell into Federal hands. It remained there until the Custis family was able to recover their property years later.

"That's probably why it survived," Whalen said. "It was in storage."

In 1910, the tent was purchased from the Lee family for about $5,000 by the Rev. W. Herbert Burk, who started the Valley Forge Historical Society.

"Reverend Burk hoped to establish a museum to commemorate the founding of the country, and he wanted this tent as a centerpiece," said ZeeAnn Mason, vice president of the Museum of the American Revolution.

The tent will be a key exhibit once the museum, to be located at Third and Chestnut streets, opens, probably in late 2015. Currently, the site is occupied by the old visitor's center, built during the Bicentennial, which also is where the preservation work is being done. This building soon will be razed.

The problem is how to exhibit the tent, which is fragile with age, without damaging the irreplaceable artifact.

Enter Whalen, Stadel and others.

Their task was to preserve the tent and erect it in such a way that it appears to be standing on its own, while actually being supported by an inner framework invisible to the public.

"What we built was essentially a giant double umbrella," said Stadel, who works for the Philadelphia engineering firm of Keast & Hood.

The aluminum frame consists of two telescoping upright poles connected by a ridge pole. Each of the uprights has 13 telescoping ribs that are hinged so they can move up or down or left to right and be extended as needed.

"We did it that way because we initially had no idea of the tent's dimensions, so everything had to be adjustable," Stadel said.

The guide ropes appear to keep the tent upright, but they actually pass through small holes in the linen and attach to hooks on the frame.

"It gives the illusion that the tent has been pulled taut," Stadel said.

A computer model was designed to show stress points. Actual testing was done using a replica tent, or "stunt double," that was hand-sewn by the tentmakers at Historic Williamsburg.

"From that, we determined that the tent will not rip under is own weight when we put it up," Stadel said.

Washington's tent will not lie directly on the frame, but on a linen inner tent.

"We're still working on this because there was a little more stretchiness to it than we wanted, and we're trying to fine-tune the design," Whalen said.

The sub tent will fit over the frame. Then Washington's tent will be draped on top using utmost care, because it has to be done right the first time.

"Every time you move the tent or manipulate it, there's the risk of damage, so we want to keep all handling to a minimum," Whalen said.

Stadel said when he first saw the tent, he realized the historical magnitude of what he was doing.

"It is an extraordinary project," he said. "I feel honored to be a part of it."

Whalen called it a "really fascinating" project.

"It's an amazing artifact even to have survived, because it's gigantic," she said. "It's in remarkably good condition for its age and fact that it was used continually by Washington."

Mason said the museum is ""very honored" to possess such an important  relic.

"It's been treasured through the ages," she said.



Larry Alexander is a Lancaster Newspapers staff writer and humor columnist. He covers police and fire news, as well as theater reviews, veteran and other feature stories. He can be reached at lalexander@lnpnews.com or (717) 295-5071. You can also follow@LarryLNP on Twitter.