Independence National Park


The Fourth of July I checked the bookshelves for something to read related to the holiday.  I found several books and decided to reread “ Independence: the creation of a national park,” by Constance M. Greiff.  It was written in 1989 and I probably bought it then since I was teaching a local history (including Philadelphia) course at Holy Ghost Prep.  I bought any new publications related to Bucks County and Philadelphia.  My copy is annotated with many underlines, a sign that I used it in teaching.


In my first year of retirement (2014) before surgery, I was doing a weekly explore of Philadelphia.  I took the train from Yardley; seniors one dollar a ride.  Some day I had a specific destination but usually just wandered patient for the serendipitous.  Many days were spent around Independence Park, Society Hill and Old City.  Although some days I’d  go to Reading Terminal Market and head west toward Rittenhouse Square or Logan Circle.  Actually I had done similar wandering during a six  week summer period in the 1980s when I participated in a National Endowment for the Humanities program in Local History led by Walter Light, University of Pennsylvania.  Again I took the train and had several hours to explore before classes started about ten o’clock.


My first visits to Independence Park were in the 1950s.  My father took regular weekly trips to Jeweler’s Row for his business.  I’d tag along when I could.  After a Horn & Hardart automat lunch we’d go to Independence Hall.  It was my introduction to the 1776 story and historic preservation.  I was fascinated by the history but totally taken by the restoration work which was ongoing. I’ve written previously about seeing conservators peel away many layers of paint searching for the original color.  For many years now I’ve subscribed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the renewal is on my desk.  Chapters in “Independence” are devoted to the preservation, restoration process.

There are quite a few times that I took students to tour Independence and the surrounding area.  The first was when I taught elementary school.  There were about 100 students in the seventh grade classes I taught.  I recruited teachers, parents, even some older siblings so we could break into groups of 10 or 12 students.  I drew up a map with historic commentary and the groups went off for the day.  I didn’t limit the tour to the Park but believed the students should explore the city.  The events of 1776, Independence Hall and other “historic” building were only part of the story.  Society Hill, Old City, Department stores, and Reading Terminal were part of my tour. I used this model many years later when I was asked to take HGPs 100 student Freshman class on a Philadelphia field trip — small groups, the city experience.

Prior to the 1950s, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell were owned and maintained by the City of Philadelphia. It was decided to establish a National Park with federal funding for the restoration, maintenance and interpretation of these icons.  One major question as the feds began acquiring adjacent property was what to do with the many buildings around the Independence Hall.  Many did not relate to the colonial-Revolutionary period.  Williamsburg was a model for those that believed only buildings related to the period should survive.  Another view was that the urban fabric, street configurations and any architectural/historic building no matter the period should be preserved.  The Williamsburg view was adopted.  Independence Park had a open mall and green areas showcasing Independence Hall and related buildings.

In the 1980-90s I took many of my Local History classes on a Philadelphia trip.  I usually had about 10-15 students in the course.  We started in Old City and visited Christ’s Church, Quaker Meeting, Betsy Ross House, and Elfrey’s Alley but we also looked at Girard warehouses, nineteenth century industrial buildings, Arden Theatre, art galleries, even restaurants.  We went to Independence Park, Society Hill but didn’t specifically tour Independence Hall or Liberty Bell Pavillon.  We were exploring the urban landscape not just “historic” buildings.  We always lunched in Reading Terminal Market and in the afternoon, if we had the time, headed for Rittenhouse.  It was always a full day.  Several summers I took college classes in a social studies education course on a similar tour.

The creation of the National Park involved many different personalities, organizations and different views. What buildings should be preserved?  What should be torn down?  How should buildings be restored?   Should buildings be reconstructed?

Historians and craftsmen pioneered work in historic preservation.  They did extensive research, archaeology, and clues from buildings to guide restoration.  Much of what they did was open to the public.  Just before the bicentennial, one of my students did his senior May project on a dig in Franklin Court.  What a great experience.  I attended several archaeological workshops and hoped they would begin a program for teacher volunteers. I frequently visited to the working archaeology section of the Visitor’s Center.

City Tavern was one building that was reconstructed.  A concession was given to run the restaurant and tavern.  The chef Walter Staub promoted colonial cuisine in a TV show.  I have several CDs.  I also have his cookbook and a children’s book on the tavern.  I dined  there several times.  The most memorable was a formal dinner when I was participating in a National Endowment Program on Benjamin Franklin.  The most recent was on one of my post retirement city explores.  Another reconstructed building is the Graff  House on Market where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.  I haven’t been through it in decades.

What to do at Franklin Court?  There wasn’t a lot of original structure to the Market Street buildings that Franklin had rented.  They were renovated/reconstructed.  One became Franklin’s print shop, another a working post office and the interior of a third was left in the rough with interpretative signs.  An archway leads to the interior court.  Franklin’s house was gone. Rather than reconstruction, the  architectural firm of Robert Venturi created a Ghost House, steel structure over the original foundation.  Viewing boxes look down on archaeological features like the privy, foundation wall, and well.  I always liked this area.  I would sit students on benches and have them imagine what it was like when Franklin lived there.  We never went into the underground interpretative center.

On the night of July 3 1976, the Liberty Bell was moved from the first floor of Independence Hall to a new pavilion on Independence Mall.  I remember visiting, touching the bell in the 1950s when it was displayed near Independence Hall stairs.  My teaching about the Bell was taken from a Teaching With Historic Places lesson plan, “Liberty Bell: From Obscurity to Ikon.” I’ve only been inside to see the Liberty Bell a few times. I remember one visit with students, after hearing the ranger’s speech, I said “Good to see your following the interpretation Teaching With Historic Places so well.” He looked at me very puzzled.  Another year I with touring German exchange students.  When we arrived at the Bell, the area was swarming with rangers and police.  The Bell was cordoned of. We learned that someone had just hit it with a hammer.

How to interpret the Independence Hall Story, including the Liberty Bell was a focus of the National Park Service.  Pamphlets and audio visual aids and movies were produced.  In the early 2000, how to interpret became very controversial. A new building on the north end of the Mall was being built for the Bell. Archaeology of the President’s House where George Washington lived was conducted.  Evidence of the building foundation including the kitchen were discovered.  Washington’s chef Hercules and the other Mount Vernon slaves he brought to Philadelphia were the source of the controversy.  Would they be part of the story told?   The fact that Washington took them back to Virginia periodically to avoid a PA law which gave them freedom after 6 months in the state took center stage.  Initially the answer was no interpretation of slavery.  Historians and some Philadelphians objected.  I went to a lecture given by historian Gary Nash about the controversy.  With the appointment of a new Park superintendent, the decision changed.  Hercules (who eventually ran away) and other slaves would be part of the interpretation of the President’s House site.  I recently read a book about Hercules and wrote a blog.

“Independence” can be a bit dry.  There are so many names of people involved over the years from the 1940s till 1976 which the book covers.  Philadelphia supporters, mayors, architects, historians, archaeologists, superintendents, National Park personnel, legislators, bureaucrats in Washington.  With so many people involved there were plenty of controversies.  Funding was always an issue.

There are however some interesting details.  When the Park Service began to hire guides it was decided women (not overly attractive) were better than men.  They would take guiding tourists more seriously.  Airlines were contacted to get ideas for stewardess like uniforms.  The efforts to collect original Peale paintings from museums and private collections to form the collection now on display in the Second National Bank (above) was fascinating.  Philadelphia Irish resistance to moving the Commodore Barry statue behind the Hall to create a building to display the Bell was classic.   I enjoyed reading about the visit of Queen Elizabeth in ‘76 with the bicentennial bell gift forged in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London where the several Liberty Bells were cast.

Despite all the many times I have been to Independence Park, I feel ready for more explorations.  I only recently went into the Merchant Exchange on Dock Street.  It’s predominately used for Park offices but is an experience to be inside.    It’s been decades since I’ve visited the Bishop White and Dolly Madison houses on Walnut Street.  There is a new interpretative center (for me anyway) in Franklin Court and a new Revolutionary War Museum on the site of the old visitor center.  I’ve never been to a service in Christ Church.


I did take the Independence Hall official tour during the first year of retirement.  Unfortunately it was disappointing; too little interpretation; too quick; more of a promotion for the rest of the park. I had thought of becoming a volunteer at Independence Park before my surgeries.  Since that probably isn’t possible I need to look for special programs, lectures or tours.  The story of Independence is constantly changing; there is always more to learn.















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