Renovation work sought for Betsy Ross painting 'Birth of Our Nation's Flag,' stored for 30 years, needs $25,000 in repairs

March 01, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA -- Charles H. Weisgerber Jr. wants to donate his grandfather's famous oil painting, "Birth of Our Nation's Flag," to the Betsy Ross House, but first he needs $25,000 for repairs.

The 9-by-12-foot canvas depicts Betsy Ross showing a newly sewn 13-star American flag to George Washington.

But the century-old canvas is rolled up and has been in temperature-controlled storage in southern Jersey for more than 30 years. It needs major repairs.

"The painting belongs in the Betsy Ross House for the public to see," Weisgerber said from his home in Treasure Island, Fla.

The Betsy Ross House is very interested in "Birth of Our Nation's Flag."

But, Arthur Hoist, executive director of the Betsy Ross House, said: "The city owns the building, and so we are not in a position to raise funds for the restoration project. But we can provide space and insurance. It's hard for a nonprofit to take on a project like that."

Hoist did have some good news for Weisgerber: If someone were to restore the painting and frame it, he said, it could hang on a large brick wall in the Betsy Ross House annex.

The National Postal Museum in Washington has already turned down Weisgerber's offer.

"We could not put it on permanent display because we don't have room. And the conservation cost would be massive," said James Bruns, the museum's curator.

Weisgerber, 71, a retired sales representative for a cash register company, asked a painting conservator, Fred Koszewnik of Marlton, N.J., to examine the painting. He determined that its restoration would take three to four months - and cost about $25,000.

"The canvas hasn't been monkeyed around with much," Koszewnik said.

"It's in pretty fine shape, but it does need some attention because the old canvas is brittle and dry, and it has been rolled up several times. It's not in a frame. It's the canvas that holds the paint together," he said.

Weisgerber said his grandfather, Charles H. Weisgerber, was born in Germantown, Pa., and studied art and sculpture.

In 1893, his grandson said, the city of Philadelphia offered a $1,000 prize for the best rendition of a local historical event.

Family lore has it that around that time, the elder Weisgerber happened to stroll by the Betsy Ross House, where he spotted a sign reading, "Home of Betsy Ross: seamstress, upholsterer and maker of the first American flag."

He conferred with Ross' grandson, William Canby, and began painting. Ultimately, his work featured a seated Ross with the flag spread out toward Washington, Robert Morris and George Ross, members of a committee charged with finding someone to design and make a flag to unite the colonies.

His grandfather won the $1,000 prize, and his painting was displayed at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago that year.

The painting also appeared at the 1933-1934 Chicago World's Fair, in the John Wanamaker window in the 1930s, at a couple of war bond rallies in the Philadelphia area during World War II, and at the Pennsylvania Museum of Art in Harrisburg.

In 1959, it was returned to Weisgerber's mother's home in southern New Jersey and later placed in storage.

Though the painting has made infrequent public appearances, it has been included in several history books, and, in 1952, it was reproduced in miniature more than 116 million times - on a 3-cent postage stamp commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Betsy Ross.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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