Stern’s Revolution Museum Silences QEII Bell

Queen Elizabeth outside at the dedication of the Bicentennial Bell in 1976.

Queen Elizabeth II at the dedication of the Bicentennial Bell in 1976. (Courtesy

After rejecting two plans for the Museum of the American Revolution at Valley Forge, the American Revolution Center (ARC) made a land swap with the National Park Service to secure a prime location in Center City Philadelphia. In exchange for donating their 78-acre property at the Valley Forge site, the Park Service will give the museum nearly two-thirds of the space of the former National Park Visitors Center near Independence Mall on Third Street. ARC selected Robert A.M. Stern to design the $150 million building. Stern told ThePhiladelphia Inquirer he plans to use “the language of traditional Philadelphia architecture.” The 1970s era building designed by Cambridge Seven and its redbrick modernist bell tower holding the Bicentennial Bell, a gift to United States from Queen Elizabeth II, will be demolished, and critics worry the future of the bell itself is uncertain.

The tower designed by Cambridge Seven holds the Bicentennial Bell.

The tower designed by Cambridge Seven holds the Bicentennial Bell.

ARC plans to demolish the northern section of the center as well as the bell tower. The complex remains one of the few vestiges of the national park’s bicentennial architecture, with Mitchell/Giurgola‘s Liberty Bell Pavilion now long gone and Venturi Scott Brown‘s Ghost House facing a facelift.  The old visitors center was never fully embraced, excepting the day of its commemoration when all the world watched as the monarch let bygones be bygones in the former rebel capitol.

The bell was forged at Whitechapel Foundry in London, the same as the Liberty Bell, and it apparently works just as well. To be fair, it’s the mechanism for the clapper that’s out of order in the 1976 bell. The body of the bell remains solid. Its warm, low tone held a respectable sway over its stately neighbors for years, but all that will likely come to an end when the bell is moved. Independence National Historic Park spokesperson Jane Cowley told AN that the park is tentatively working on relocating the bell near the new museum at Dock Street, but it probably will not be hung from the rafters. It will be brought closer to the street-level for tourists to see rather than for the neighborhood to hear.

The Queen visits the original in the Mitchell/Giurgola designed Liberty Bell pavilion.

The Queen visits the original in the Mitchell/Giurgola designed Liberty Bell pavilion.

“It’s odd that one of the few remaining traces of the American Bicentennial celebrations is a bell that few visitors can see and none can hear and that was given by the country from which we fought for independence,” one long time urban historian wrote in an email. The historian, who requested anonymity, also called into question status of the bell.  “If it’s an artifact accessioned by the Park Service, there’s a huge number of formal protocols that have to be followed,” wrote the historian. “If it’s not, it will be hugely easy for the bell to become mysteriously lost in the shuffle.”

The Queen, for one, had very specific intentions for the bell. It was to be rung with the inauguration of a president and the coronation of the British monarch, thus the bell’s inscription “Let Freedom Ring.” For some reason the Park Service began ringing the bell at 11AM and 3PM, which led Park employees to quip, “Let Freedom Ring, at 11 and 3.”

The tower and visitors center complex were one of the more subtle examples of late modernism in the Society Hill section of the city.  The restored former slum is now what one pictures when imagining Philly’s ubiquitous colonial charm. The tower’s red brick planes somewhat obscure the bell, but pierced openings allow the sound to escape. Sidewalk access allows visitors to step beneath the bell to hear it ring–when it works.

The old Park Service visitors center, along with much of the bicentennial architecture, brought a contemporary aesthetic to a national park commemorating forward-thinking forefathers. Nearby, dozens of discrete 1970s modernist interventions of quiet courtyards and low-slung row homes linked the 18th century to the 20th; one hopes that Stern’s “language of traditional Philadelphia architecture” will speak as well to the twenty-first.

Related Stories