PHILADELPHIA, Oct. 9 Joseph Johnson was standing as close to the Liberty Bell as one could imagine in this post-9/11 age. But for a smiling National Park Service ranger, he was an arm's length away from the famous crack as the bell wheeled past him in the early-morning sunlight.
"To be here, right here, to see the Liberty Bell outside, unencumbered, really shows what freedom is about," said Johnson, who had come from Topeka, Kan., to see the Liberty Bell moved to its new home, just across the street from Independence Hall. "It's only a cracked bell, I guess, but it is majestic to me."
The Liberty Bell made its rare outdoor appearance Thursday to move down the block from its old, somewhat cramped pavilion to the new $12.9 million Liberty Bell Center. The last time the bell was outside was on its move from Independence Hall to the pavilion on the rainy New Year's night of Jan. 1, 1976. Few weathered the storm to see that move, so the National Park Service, as if dishing up the brilliant, warm fall day, reveled in making a big ceremony out of this move.
"Sure, this is a big thing for the city, which, as you know, owns the bell. It's something really good for the city," said Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street, wiping off his suit after making bell-shaped pancakes at a breakfast tent near the new center for dignitaries and Park Service workers. Earlier this week, police discovered a listening device in the mayor's office, leading to the revelation that the FBI was conducting a corruption investigation, though the mayor has not been implicated, so Street said he was relieved to have a positive experience.
The pavilion that held the Liberty Bell for 27 years was a bit of unloved Americana in the city. A low-slung, boxy, oblong glass building plunked in the middle of an often ill-landscaped block just north of Independence Hall, it was criticized mostly for minimizing the grandeur of the Liberty Bell. The pavilion was built in the first place because federal and city officials feared that the crowds expected for the nation's bicentennial celebration in Philadelphia would overwhelm the bell at its former station in the Independence Hall lobby. But the hordes never came, and locals lamented that the bell and Independence Hall were no longer joined.
The new Liberty Bell Center sits southwest of the old pavilion but is about twice its size, with an interpretive area explaining the bell's history and a large window behind where the bell now hangs that almost projects it into Independence Hall, which sits about 200 yards across Chestnut Street.
George Young, who owns the 134-year-old contracting company that bears his name, said his firm could have moved the 2,080-pound bell to its new location in less than an hour. But the National Park Service wanted a pageant surrounding the move, so he was willing to comply.
"It's great to see people be a part of a ceremony like this," said Young, tall and beaming under his hard hat. The specially built dolly with heavy-duty pneumatic tires and super-shock-sensitive padding stopped a half-dozen times in its trip around the block for tiny dramas. An actor playing abolitionist Frederick Douglass explained the bell's symbolism for his 19th century era. A trio impersonated the Andrews Sisters at a World War II bond rally singing such mid-20th century favorites as "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" at another.
The bell has numerous sensitive spots that had to be monitored the crack, for instance. No, not that famous big slice along its front. That was drilled out intentionally, the hope of staying the crack. What is worrisome are the tiny, spiderlike fringes of crack leading from that toward the top of the bell.
"We are now able to mold monitors to the tip of the crack, to see how it is affected over time, within one-tenth of a micrometer," said Andrew Lins, a Philadelphia Museum of Art employee who is the conservator of the bell. Lins and the curator of the bell, Robert L. Giannini III, nostalgically looked at their logbook as the Young Co. employees wheeled the bell out. There was a checkerboard of blocks for each monthly checkup and each of five categories. Most have Giannini's handwritten "OK." But then there was May 1995, when they found blue ink that had to be removed from the rim of the bell, and a notation for April 6, 2001, when a vandal took a four-pound sledgehammer to the bell, and Lins had to fix dings.
"The last notation is for this morning," said Giannini, proudly showing off the list of "OKs." "It's funny. It gets touched by lots of people every year, every day. Over time, it could have a corrosive effect. But that's what the Liberty Bell should be, something everyone has a hand in."
During the building of the new Liberty Bell Center, historians discovered that it sits on a site where President George Washington's slaves probably lived. The house in which Washington and John Adams, the only two presidents in office while Philadelphia was the capital, lived sat just north of the new pavilion. Washington, who was from Virginia, brought his slaves to Philadelphia. The historians determined that they most likely lived behind the house, where the country's most sacred symbol of liberty now sits.
"We had to commemorate that somehow," said National Park Service spokesman Phil Sheridan, pointing out one of the interpretive stations inside the new center that explains Washington's use of slaves two of whom escaped to freedom while in Philadelphia. "But this was also a neighborhood in which free blacks lived, and living nearby in this community had to have influenced those slaves to seek their freedom."
Sheridan said the National Park Service is awaiting about $4 million in funding to re-create or commemorate the old presidential house the original was demolished in the mid-19th century and said there will be some portion of that devoted to the slaves who lived there.
After a five-hour move, the Liberty Bell was lifted onto its new perch, with Independence Hall looming behind. One of its longtime admirers, Ben Franklin, was there to give his view.
"The crack represents our two sides, the British and the Colonists," said Franklin played by Ralph Archibald, the Philadelphia actor who spends many of his days dressed in Colonial garb, spouting Franklinian wisdom around the historic area. "Finally, there was too much friction, and we had to separate. But like the crack, we stayed close and, even though we no longer ring together, we can still appreciate this precious thing called liberty."