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Source: NCC Washington Update, Vol. 8, #14
Date: April 9, 2002
Byline: Bruce Craig of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History. (NCCPH)

Controversy Surrounds New Location For Liberty Bell

In 2003, the National Park Service (NPS) hopes to unveil a new $9 million pavilion in Philadelphia to house one of the enduring icons of freedom - the Liberty Bell. The new Liberty Bell Center (LBC) at Independence National Historical Park is to be located just steps from the glass pavilion where the Bell, a symbol of the American revolution and the abolitionist movement, has been displayed since 1976.

However, the new location is in very close proximity to the site of the Robert Morris House which served as the Executive mansion of the United States from 1790 to 1800. It is also where George Washington kept his eight slaves during his residency in Philadelphia. In the 1830's, the red-brick presidential mansion at 190 High Street (today's Market Street) where both Washington and second President of the United States John Adams conducted the nation's business, was razed along with all its associated outbuildings. In 1951, except for the structure's foundations, what little remained of the house was demolished to make way for Independence Mall. Public toilets were eventually erected on top of much of the historic spot.

The Liberty Bell Center is part of a massive $300 million dollar renovation for the Independence Mall that includes the historical parks new visitor's center and the National Constitution Center which is under construction. The NPS plans to remove the restroom facility and construct a walkway to the new Liberty Bell Center. The NPS sees no need to excavate the site of the Executive mansion; some archeologists believe that the presence of slaves probably cannot be documented through the archeological record as virtually all of the physical remnants of their living quarters was probably erased long ago. Still, assuming there is something of research value remaining, NPS spokesman Phil Sheridan maintains, "If its not going to be destroyed [by construction], the best preservation is to leave it in place-that's standard practice and one of the tenets of archeology....Excavating it can mean you have to destroy it." What the NPS plans to do instead, is to place a small interpretive plaque on the edge of the sidewalk to interpret the President's house and slavery in the vicinity.

Critics believe the NPS is avoiding the obvious contradiction of freedom and servitude. At a minimum they want the NPS to excavate the site and construct a suitable memorial. One group, The Independence Hall Association, is advocating that the NPS create a stone footprint outlining the location of the house where Washington once lived. Though the organization does not have a concrete suggestion on how to deal with the slave-quarters issue, the Association notes, that John Adams also lived in the Executive mansion and since he was opposed slavery, the site provides the NPS with "a grand opportunity to interpret the complex and still-haunting issues of slavery in the [early] days of our government."

Park Superintendent Martha B. Aikens, however, sees little to be gained by constructing a footprint memorial. It would serve "only to show the size of rooms, which has little interpretive value," she says. More importantly, since the new location for the Liberty Bell will occupy much of the space formerly occupied by the Morris Mansion and its outbuildings, "the entire landscape from Market Street to the LBC would require redesign to achieve this proposal...[and it] would create design dissonance between two features, potentially causing confusion for visitors."

According to Gary B. Nash, professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles and a scholar of the American Revolution, "Our historical memory is often managed and manipulated [but] it's downright being murdered in Philadelphia." Nash urges the NPS to "get to the serious matter of how liberty and slavery coexisted."

At Independence NHP the Legislative and Judicial branches of the federal government are interpreted within the Independence Hall group of buildings, but there is little preserved in the historical park that enables the NPS to tell the story of the Executive branch. With a paucity of structures that could serve as the catalyst for telling that important aspect of our nation's early history, a spokesman for the NPS states that park officials have yet to fully address the issue of how to interpret the Executive branch within the historic core. While the NPS does own and interpret the Deshler-Morris House in Germantown, the oldest surviving presidential residence in the nation, it is located miles away from the central complex that constitutes the core of Independence NHP and receives the bulk of visitors. Some critics suggest that a series of wayside exhibits or a museum situated elsewhere in the park (perhaps in a retrofitted historic building), the park could tell the neglected story of the Executive department in the early national period.

 

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