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Preservationist painstakingly restore George Washington's tent | (KRT) PHILADELPHIA — George Washington's Revolutionary War aides would have wasted no time pulling the general's grand, billowing tent from its poles and clearing out when the British were near.

The tent - used for sleeping and meetings - would have been hastily folded, packed into its dark-leather valise with the six straps and buckles and carted to the next battlefield.

Preservation experts wearing white gloves were in no hurry this week as they gingerly dismantled the priceless artifact at Valley Forge National Historical Park.

"This is so rare," said Loreen Finkelstein, a textile conservator from Williamsburg, Va., looking at the tent in its glass exhibit case. "We're lucky it has survived at all."

She will spend the next three years evaluating and restoring the tent that was Washington's battlefield headquarters, where he conversed with the Marquis de Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, and the Comte de Rochambeau.

The tent is expected to return to Valley Forge as the centerpiece exhibit when a new $100 million National Center for the American Revolution opens in the park on July 4, 2006.

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The tent is one of three shelters made for Washington by Philadelphia merchant Plunket Fleeson in 1775. The general's dining tent is in the Smithsonian, and a bigger one, believed to have stored baggage, is on display at the national park in Yorktown, Va., where the war ended.

Historians said Washington lived in the sleeping tent for his first five days at the Valley Forge encampment in December 1777, before taking a local house as his headquarters.

Twelve thousand Continental Army soldiers spent that winter in Valley Forge, denuding the countryside of trees to build the log huts that were their only shelter. One in 10 died of disease. But they left the following June a much more disciplined fighting force, military historians said, to continue the struggle for independence.

Herman O. Benninghoff II, 72, a Revolutionary War historian and collector from Cinnaminson, N.J., said the 18th-century tent survived because of the tenacity of the Rev. W. Herbert Burk, an Episcopal minister from Norristown, Pa., who tracked it down and bought it in 1909.

Burk also founded the Valley Forge Historical Society, which is helping to build the national center.

The tent went to Martha Washington after her husband died, historians said, then to a grandson, George Washington Parke Curtis, and eventually to his daughter, Mary Curtis Lee, who married Civil War Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

The tent - along with all of Lee's belongings - was confiscated by the government in Washington, then returned to the Lee family by President William McKinley. In 1909, Gen. Lee's daughter, Mary Lee, sold the tent to Burk.

Benninghoff said Burk tracked Lee all over Europe to secure the sale. "He wrote letter after letter. The correspondence has survived," he said.

Eventually, Lee agreed to sell the tent to Burk for $5,000 if he paid the money to a society for confederate widows in Richmond, Va.

Burk went to a Washington warehouse to retrieve what he had bought, not knowing the size of it. The tent, Valley Forge experts said, is 21 feet long, 18 feet wide, and slopes from 12 feet in the center to 7 feet on the sides.

"He carried it home on the train," Benninghoff said. "He carried what he could, the poles and all."

Benninghoff said Burk, who had little money, paid off his debt in 10 years. "He set the tent up, sometimes outside, and charged people to walk through." Visitors paid a nickel to walk through the tent.

The opening of the American Revolution center, with a collection of more than 25,000 artifacts of the period, is expected to draw 700,000 more visitors each year to the park, which already attracts more than 900,000, center officials said.

The improvements to the 3,466-acre historic site, which became a national park in 1976, could bring more than 850 jobs, experts said, and spread $48 million through the local economy.

Center president Thomas M. Daly said he hoped a display would be designed so that "people can actually walk through the tent."

The Revolutionary War center is promoted as a companion to the popular National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, which opened July 4.

ZeeAnn Mason, senior vice president of the new Revolutionary War center, said $1 million had just been spent renovating the Welcome Center at the Route 23 entrance to Valley Forge.

And 90-minute bus tours of the park are now offered on weekends, with guides explaining the historical significance of sections of the park.

"We all know this is hallowed ground," Mason said. "Many come here for recreation, for the beauty. But there hasn't been anyone to tell what the history of an area is. That's changing."

Until now, there has been no central history point for the American Revolution. Valley Forge was authorized to launch the project because the region symbolizes the campaigns of the war for independence, Mason said.

The state has given $8 million. A group called Save America's Treasures has given half of the cost of preserving Washington's tent - $286,000. The national center is raising a matching $286,000.

On Sept. 25, a team from Texas Tech University specializing in laser technology spent the day making a "point cloud" computer image of the tent. This is the same group that made a laser-mapping image of the Statue of Liberty in 2001 so that national landmark could be rebuilt if it is ever damaged.

Mason said the national center might find a way to use the laser images on a computer Web site, so that interested visitors could see a virtual three-dimensional image of Washington's tent.

Finkelstein and three park staffers - curator Michelle Ortwein, archivist Dona McDermott, and museum specialist Scott Houting - worked cautiously with the tent all day.

The textile expert and her team pulled the rope pegs from the floor, lifted the tent apart piece by piece, and placed it on a table nearby. The pieces were wrapped in acid-free tissue paper and folded into trays for the trip to Williamsburg.

At her lab, Finkelstein will not only determine the best ways to save the fabric, but also will repair damage. The tent liner has stretched differently from the outside covering, causing stress in some spots.

Finkelstein said she would not know whether the tent was made of linen or hemp until she examined it further. She said that most tents of the era were hemp, but that records of this tent indicate linen. It has red wool scalloping around its top folds.

"There is a piece missing," she said. "There was a piece that created an interior chamber. It is on display at Yorktown."

Benninghoff said Burk was not able to carry the piece back on the train. "It will be reunited with the tent when the national center opens," Finkelstein said.

The leather case for the tent is kept out of sight in climate-controlled conditions.

Benninghoff, a board member with the national center, had it brought out and placed on the table where the tent was being packed.

"Boy, there's some history there," he said quietly at one point, as he looked down at the dark tent valise, cracked and missing straps, but still recognizable.

"From the field, to Arlington, to Washington," he said. "If that case could talk, you'd have a real story."

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© 2003, The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services