Moving the Bell

Soon America's most venerated icon will have a new, and more appropriate, home

THE Liberty Bell is a rarity -- an authentic American relic. Yet it owes its celebrity to several accidents. To begin with, this was the bell that called citizens to the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence, in the yard behind the State House in Philadelphia, on July 8, 1776. Would that alone have been enough to enshrine it in national memory? Probably not. In 1828, when the steeple of the State House (now called Independence Hall) was rebuilt, the bell was taken down and replaced by a newer and larger model. The old State House bell, as it was then called, was to be sold; but sentimentality prevailed, and it was instead relegated to a lower section of the steeple. No doubt the bell's provenance contributed to its mythic quality: the original bell had been cast in England but had cracked shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, in 1753; it was melted down and recast by two local artisans. Thus the great symbol of American independence really was Made in the USA or at least in what would soon become the USA.

At the time of its recasting it was inscribed, as before, with a biblical passage to commemorate William Penn's Charter of Privileges: "PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGHOUT ALL THE LAND UNTO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF." The inscription was curiously prophetic. During the 1830s New England abolitionists picked the bell as a symbol, emphasizing that the inscription read liberty to"allthe inhabitants." They christened it the Liberty Bell, and used its image in antislavery pamphlets. The bell's reputation was cemented by the popular nineteenth-century novelist George Lippard, who wrote an entirely fictional but widely reprinted account of an old bellman's ringing it as soon as the Continental Congress agreed to declare independence.
The famous crack appeared sometime in the 1830s or 1840s. Some say that the fault occurred while the bell was ringing in a celebration of Washington's birthday; others maintain that the bell was tolling the death of Chief Justice John Marshall. The crack prevented the bell from being rung except on special occasions such as D-Day and VE Day. The mystery and inaccessibility only enhanced the legend.

Starting at the end of the nineteenth century the Liberty Bell traveled widely for several decades. It was first sent to New Orleans, to be displayed at the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition. After that its appearance at world's fairs and expositions became routine: it was in Chicago for the World's Columbian Exposition, and over the next decade appeared in Atlanta, Charleston, and St. Louis; it was in Boston for the 128th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, and in San Francisco for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. The bell drew large crowds each time it traveled. But fears that the crack was enlarging eventually kept it in Philadelphia, and since 1915 it has moved only three times: it was twice paraded through the streets of the city during the First World War Liberty Loan drives, and on the occasion of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution it was moved from its traditional home in Independence Hall to a special pavilion, where it rests today.

IN a few years the Liberty Bell will be moved again, this time as part of an ambitious master plan to create an appropriate setting not only for the bell but also for Independence Hall. Independence Hall is the birthplace of the American nation -- the site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, of course, and also of the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of the United States. Here, too, Congress adopted the American flag and received news of Cornwallis's surrender, Washington delivered his Farewell Address, and the first Supreme Court held its sessions. The building itself is a dignified piece of Georgian architecture, probably designed by Andrew Hamilton, a Philadelphia lawyer and an amateur architect. The Palladian composition consists of a main block, containing the Assembly Room, where the Founding Fathers met, and two secondary buildings -- Congress Hall and the Supreme Court Building -- linked to it by arcades. From 1790 to 1800 the buildings served as the seat of both the federal and the state government. Then the federal government moved to Washington and the state government decamped to Lancaster; for the next sixteen years Independence Hall had no official function. The buildings were slated for demolition when they -- along with the bell -- were bought by the city for $70,000, a sum raised by public subscription. During General Lafayette's visit to the city, in 1824, the building was christened the Hall of Independence. By the time of the Centennial of the American Revolution it had acquired the role of a national shrine. The cracked Liberty Bell was displayed in the hallway to the tower.

Today the Liberty Bell rests in a modern low-slung pavilion about 500 feet away from Independence Hall, displayed in front of a plate-glass wall through which the visitor can see the brick façade of Independence Hall. Unfortunately, from this vantage point the most striking architectural object is not the hall's graceful steeple but a modern addition to the high-rise headquarters of the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company, which looms behind it. Perhaps by coincidence, the architects of the pavilion, Mitchell/ Giurgola Associates, also designed the high-rise addition.

That America's most hallowed icon is displayed in a banal and undistinguished building with all the lyricism of a large bus shelter is bad enough, but the building's surroundings are even worse. The Liberty Bell Pavilion stands in what is known as Independence Mall, a three-block-long area that stretches in front of Independence Hall. The mall is a recent creation. For more than 200 years the side of the street facing Independence Hall was lined with everyday commercial buildings. Beginning in 1915 several architects made proposals for opening up the area in front of the hall, in order to create a dignified setting. Each proposal outdid its predecessor in size: the first design occupied half a block, and later proposals expanded the plaza to a full city block, two blocks, finally three. Most of these plans were formal axial compositions in the Beaux Arts-inspired manner of the City Beautiful movement, with flanking rows of trees and great expanses of lawn. The most ambitious proposal created a vista that stretched out 2,000 feet in front of Independence Hall, like some urban version of the gardens at Versailles.

Only in 1952 was a master plan devised that would actually be built. The planners of Independence Mall -- overseen by Edmund N. Bacon, the powerful executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission -- used urban-renewal legislation to demolish three city blocks. They followed the proposals of the City Beautiful architects, but being modern planners, they did not want to create a single grandiose composition, so they designed each block separately. Despite its name, the mall is really three independent and unrelated landscaped blocks separated by city streets. The marriage of International Style modernism and Beaux Arts formalism proved awkward; it was not unified or coherent or beautiful. The block closest to Independence Hall was popular, but the rest of the mall was barren and unused except by vagrants.

The mall was completed in the late 1960s. Since 1974 it has been a part of Independence National Historical Park; in 1994 the National Park Service carried out a study in anticipation of a new general management plan for the area. The study concluded,

Stylistic weaknesses, the process of design-by-committee, and the absence of a strong program for its use are the primary reasons for a form that has been widely criticized through the years. Criticism has focused on both the design qualities and the perceived lack of utility of the mall as a public park ... the key finding of this study is that the design of the mall does not meet national register criteria for significance.

In other words, Independence Mall was a mess and should be remade from scratch.

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