Officials at Independence National Historical Park are planning construction of a security screening and bathroom complex on Independence Square arguably the most important symbolic public ground in the nation, where the Declaration of Independence was first proclaimed to the public.
The plan, quietly rolled out over the last two weeks to state and local officials and select private groups, also calls for construction of an eight-foot-high fence that would effectively slice the square in half and block pedestrian access to the rear of Independence Hall, Congress Hall, and the first Supreme Court building, or Old City Hall.
The park also wants to construct a new security facility next to the Liberty Bell Center between Market and Chestnut Streets.
Preservationists and architects said they were stunned by the plans, which park officials emphasized were preliminary and estimated would cost about $7.5 million.
Mary Bomar, Independence Park superintendent, said the plan was a response to requirements imposed by the Department of the Interior, which has designated Independence Hall a "key asset."
"I think we've looked at every option available," Bomar said, alluding to a long list of often-controversial park security plans in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, including the closing of a portion of Chestnut Street.
"The bottom line for me is that I want to get this finished," said Bomar, who added that she would seek public discussion of the project. "It's gone on long enough. We've got to move forward."
Three possible types of buildings are being considered for the square on a site just south of Congress Hall near Sixth Street. One version would be partly underground, rising igloo-like. A second possibility would be a more conventional one-story building. The third version would be a two-story brick structure with exhibit space.
The security building would be on the site of a county courthouse built in 1866 and torn down in 1900 as part of the public effort to return the square to its Revolutionary-era appearance.
Across Chestnut Street, the Liberty Bell screening facility would most likely be immediately to the west of the building, although one possibility would extend the bell pavilion north, encompassing an area designated as the site of a slave memorial. The slave memorial would then be included within the bell center.
If some version of the security facility is erected on Independence Square, it would mark the first building construction on the square since the courthouse in 1866 and would reverse the century-old maintenance of an open square in honor of the nation's birth.
It could also violate a 1736 Pennsylvania statute that established the square and ordered that it "remain a public open green and walks forever."
That law, as far as anyone knows, has never been rescinded, and was adopted by the city when it purchased Independence Square, Independence Hall, Congress Hall, Old City Hall, and related structures from the state in 1818 for $70,000.
The city still owns the land and buildings. The National Park Service operates Independence National Historical Park under a 99-year lease with the city signed in 1950.
John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said he was completely surprised by the plans. Gallery said he first learned about the project yesterday at a meeting of the Design Advocacy Group, an organization that seeks improved public planning and design.
"The space, to me, is as significant in many ways as the building," said Gallery, speaking of the square and Independence Hall. "It was the place where the Declaration was first read. It was the place... that Jefferson walked around when he was contemplating what to write. So the notion that someone would be actually considering building something there is so mind-boggling, I can't conceive of it. That's why it caught me by surprise."
Architect Harris Steinberg, a member of the Philadelphia Historical Commission and executive director of Penn Praxis, consulting arm of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, called the consideration of the proposal "a shocker."
What is the logic, Steinberg wondered, for constructing fences and screening facilities on Independence Square yet leaving Chestnut Street open? What threat, if any, had been made on Independence Hall?
"When it all gets wrapped in post-9/11 flag-waving, it's hard to have an appropriate discussion," Steinberg said. "Why this plan? Are the guys in Tora Bora really plotting about a cracked bell in Philadelphia? There's a lot of fear... . There's too much of a hunkered-down mentality, and we're sending a message to future generations that we're scared."
Michael Coard, a leader of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, a group that has advocated a memorial to George Washington's slaves who once lived near what is now the entrance to the Liberty Bell Center, said he opposed including a slave commemoration within the center.
An outdoor memorial, he pointed out, would remind visitors that "to reach the heaven of liberty, you've got to cross the hell of slavery."
Richard Tyler, executive director of the city Historical Commission, said he had discussed the plan with park officials. But, he said, those discussions were limited to whether the plans would comply with federal regulations.
Officials at the state Historical and Museum Commission in Harrisburg have had similar informal discussions.
Tyler said he believed that Independence Square as well as the buildings that sit on it are all covered by the city's preservation ordinance, which would require the park to seek commission approvals for any construction.
Independence Hall is a certified national and local landmark and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
When asked specifically whether the city's Historical Commission had jurisdiction over the site, Bomar said that lawyers for the Park Service were studying the matter. She said she would follow their recommendations.
The 1950 lease agreement signed by federal and city officials requires the park director "to prevent damage to, or destruction of, any part of the grounds or buildings or their appurtenances."
Charlene Mires, associate professor of history at Villanova University and author of Independence Hall in American Memory, said construction on the square needed to be considered with extreme care because the square is infused with "meaning for Philadelphia and the nation."
"What does it mean when you are standing in a place called Independence Square and the fundamental activity is security?" she asked.