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.

LAST September the park service unveiled its master plan for Independence Mall. It is the work of a team of architects, planners, urban designers, and engineers headed by the landscape architect Laurie D. Olin. At fifty-nine, Olin has amassed an enviable portfolio of outstanding commissions, including several prominent urban parks: Bryant Park and Battery Park City, in New York; Pershing Square, in Los Angeles; and Hermann Park, in Houston. He has been a consultant to some of the biggest names in architecture, among them Frank Gehry, I. M. Pei, and Norman Foster, and his landscaping adorns the recently opened J. Paul Getty Center, in Los Angeles; the Wexner Center for the Visual Arts, in Columbus, Ohio; and the grounds of the American Academy in Rome. (Much of this work was undertaken during a partnership with Robert Hanna.) Olin, a midwesterner who grew up in Alaska, has long lived and worked in Philadelphia, and is intimately familiar with the shortcomings of the mall. His office is barely a hundred feet from the Independence Hall complex; he walks by the old building every day. Originally trained as an architect, Olin had come to think that although Independence Hall was attractive from both sides, the best view of the building was not from the mall but from a smaller square in the rear. Forty years ago Lewis Mumford wrote,

When the trees are in leaf in this park, one sees only parts of the Independence Hall group of buildings -- a patch of brick wall or a bit of white spire -- until one is close enough to take in the main structure as a whole.... There is nothing magnificent in this approach; its charm is its unpretentiousness, just as Georgian buildings please by their modest details -- a porch, a fanlight, a Palladian window -- rather than by any larger structural assertions. By the time Independence Hall is in view, it almost seems bigger than it is, and that, too, is quite fitting.

Olin also thought that the huge mall trivialized rather than enhanced the architecture of Independence Hall. He looked for a way of shutting down the 2,000-foot vista while emphasizing the green space in the center of the city. "After all," Olin said to me recently, "it is called Independence National Historical Park."

One important question facing the planners was "Where does the bell go?" "If we could find the answer to that," Olin explained to me, "everything else would fall in place." Many Philadelphians would say "Put it back in Independence Hall." This is not possible for several reasons: the Liberty Bell receives about 1.6 million visitors each year, and the wear on the old building would be unacceptable; people are used to having the bell in full view; moreover, First Amendment demonstrators have a right to gather within sight of the Liberty Bell.

It seemed to Olin that seeing the bell in juxtaposition with Independence Hall was important. If only that obtrusive office tower weren't looming in the background! Walking around the mall, he discovered that from one place on the west side -- very close to Independence Hall -- the sight line made the office tower disappear. If the Bell Pavilion were placed here, the steeple of Independence Hall would be silhouetted against the sky -- the way it was meant to be seen. Placing the Bell Pavilion close to Independence Hall would also re-create the intimate scale that Georgian architecture demands.

The new master plan had to accommodate several elements in addition to the Bell Pavilion: an interpretive area near the Liberty Bell, a visitor center, an institute that offers educational programs for children and adults, and a large structure housing the National Constitution Center. The last is a brand-new institution, chartered by Congress to increase public awareness and understanding of the U.S. Constitution. Olin credits an architect on his team, Bernard Cywinski, with the idea of lining up the required buildings one after another on the west side of the mall. The rest of the mall is treated as a landscaped park, some of it wooded and some open lawn.

IT is a brilliant solution. The buildings are strung out behind the little Bell Pavilion. They increase in bulk and height as they get farther from Independence Hall, with the National Constitution Center at the far end. A long trellised arcade will soften the sides of the buildings facing the park; the lawn and wooded areas will impart a sense of continuity to the three blocks. Hidden among the trees will be an outdoor café, picnic tables, and special-events areas.

The buildings will be designed by different architects, who have yet to be appointed. To ensure a degree of uniformity, Olin's team has devised a design code to regulate materials, building heights, and roof shapes. "This campuslike plan is a little like the Constitution itself," says David Hollenberg, of the National Park Service. "There's a set of rules that creates a community." Still, much will depend on the quality of the architecture -- above all, the quality of the Bell Pavilion. The nation's most venerated artifact and a worldwide symbol of freedom deserves a fitting home. The building should be dignified and have a strong presence; its architectural language should incorporate easily understood symbols of freedom and democracy. This is readily done within the confines of traditional architectural styles -- the Lincoln Memorial, for example, finished in 1922, continues to move us. Yet as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has demonstrated, in the hands of a talented designer abstract modernism can create a moving civic monument as well. The door should be left open to both approaches.

A wooded park bulging into the grassy area will preclude the sterile rectilinear geometry of the earlier mall. But the S curve of the tree line strikes me as the plan's single contrived element. I would have preferred a looser, more Olmstedian arrangement of picturesque clumps of trees. Nevertheless, the plan already owes much to Frederick Law Olmsted, the great nineteenth-century planner and landscape architect. Olmsted's parks are not summed up in large single gestures, the way formal French gardens are. Olmsted had nothing against formality -- many of his public parks incorporate formal elements, as did his last great work, the grounds of Biltmore, near Asheville, North Carolina. But he understood that democracy is a messy business. His parks were designed to both accept and reflect this messiness. They included places to row, ride, drive, and ice-skate; secluded glades in which to picnic; meadows in which to play games; forests in which to hike. You could be alone in an Olmsted park, or one among thousands of spectators. Similarly, the reconfigured mall promises to accommodate a variety of visitors: busloads of tourists, groups of schoolchildren, vacationing families, lunching office workers.

"We wanted everybody to be here at once and not get in each other's way," Olin says. He is referring to the different institutions that occupy the park: Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center. The new Independence Mall promises to be a congenial place for all of them, and for all of us.

Plan for Independence National Historic Park courtesy of Olin Partnership.

The Atlantic Monthly; June 1998; Moving the Bell; Volume 281, No. 6; pages 28-32.