November 1, 2003
A new home for the Liberty Bell cuts modern intrusions out of the historic picture.
How do you remove unsightly buildings from a city skyline without a wrecking ball? Simple: change your perspective. That was the solution behind the placement of the new Liberty Bell Center, which opened in Philadelphia on October 9 as part of a massive rethinking of Independence Mall that includes the construction of the new National Constitution Center.
The bell’s most recent home—a 1976 glass-and-steel box that’s been derided for decades for being cramped, out of place, and resembling a drive-thru dry cleaner’s—was aligned on the center axis of Independence Mall. The idea was to have visitors view the bell with its original home, the spire of Independence Hall, towering in the background. The problem was that two other towering spires—twentieth-century skyscrapers—stood behind Independence Hall, infringing on the historically charged moment that city leaders would like visitors to experience as they gaze upon the city’s top artifact and tourist attraction.
The two skyscrapers, the Penn Mutual Tower (1975) and the Penn Mutual Life Building (1931), are each 375 feet high. Tearing them down for better sightlines was not an option. But planners—including the National Park Service, architects Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, landscape design firm the Olin Partnership, and others—came up with a scheme to kill several birds (and two skyscrapers) with one stone: they would design a new home for the bell that would sit to the side of the mall, closer to Independence Hall.
“The [original] pavilion was placed at its position in the context of a symmetrical park plan that was very European in character, very Beaux-Arts,” the architect of the new center, Bernard Cywinski, says. “It had these iconographic pavilions, the centrality of the fountain—all of that. What has been understood since then is this desire for an American place, one that has more to do with the kinetic energy of democracy,” he says. “We felt that the balance of landscape to the east and the structures to the west, and the great open spaces framed by those two elements, spoke to our deeper culture of open spaces.”
And by situating the center to the west side of the grass-covered mall, its bell chamber could be set at an angle to face the spire. This new perspective from the west would remove the offending skyscrapers from visitors’ view as they stare up at the bell, with the spire looming directly behind it, framed only by sky. “It will be a much more intimate and visceral connection between the bell and the spire,” says Cywinski, whose firm designed Pixar’s headquarters and Bill Gates’s home.
But would all of this effort be wasted if new skyscrapers emerge east of Independence Hall someday? No, says Cywinski, who saw the “bulldozer mentality” of the 1970s destroy local historic buildings and give rise to poorly placed ones like the Penn Mutual Tower. Fortunately the surrounding area has since been designated a historic district. “Times have changed,” he says. “I think we’re all smarter. We have to be more careful with our heritage than we were back then.”