How did the Liberty Bell get stuck in an ugly prefab, which looks like a small rest stop you’d see outside Des Moines, in the corner of an empty lot across from Independence Hall? When we visited in December, everyone had to shuffle through an unheated shed filled with airport-style metal detectors and scanning machines and then return outdoors to get to the exhibit entrance. Out back, in the cold, was a sign marking this as the site of George Washington’s Executive Mansion, the Philadelphia White House for him and for Adams, later razed for development along with other historic structures in the neighborhood.
Was there ever a time when the citizens of Philadelphia didn’t realize that their history was important enough to preserve? That architectural beauty could set a tone for civic identity? And that GW’s old place would have made a pretty sweet backdrop for the Bell—say, $22.00 admission, the IMAX show additional—with room left over for a café, a gift shop, and several corporate meeting rooms? I’m not sure the new prefab even has toilets. ( The National Park Service website says the room that the bell sits in is “magnificant” [sic].)
The present always battles the past for primacy. College towns are examples of this too, as campuses expand, old neighborhoods are rebuilt, and city centers shift. In the best of them, there’s a balance—sometimes uneasy—that makes those places vital yet integral. I think of Charlottesville, Madison, and Berkeley, when I think of the American university town, though I admit haven’t spent more than a few days in any of them.
Inner Station, where I live and work, has no great sense of history or cohesion, in part due to a strong town/gown split and need for money. The city architect tried to get our residential street designated a historic district but lost to absentee landlords and their unwitting allies, homeowners afraid that someone would tell them how to maintain their properties. The old town center is nearly defunct, the university expands elsewhere, and planning commissions are frantic to bring in new taxes. Many of the original Victorian houses along here are already gone.
Across the street from our house is a big apartment complex built in the sixties. In a playful mood, the developer named the place Monument Apartments, in honor of the historic house he demolished to build the apartments. I ran over to the city archives to read up on the property.
The mansion that once stood there was built after the Civil War by a four-term mayor of Inner Station. He’d been a battlefield Colonel in the war and made good in banking, so he could afford a house with 12-foot ceilings, plaster moldings, walnut paneling throughout, and brick walls 18 inches thick. It had five bedrooms and 5 baths, one of them with a 1,700-pound clay tub built on-site. There were tennis courts out back, and a conservatory of leaded glass attached to the side, and a little roundtable in the garage that rotated their electric car to point it back out the door after they’d driven in. The house stayed in the family nearly a century, and that first guy who bought it from them lived in it only five years, politicking the whole time to re-zone the area so he could get permits to tear it down.
When his new ninety-six units opened, they were advertised with “luxurious Air Conditioning…radiant hot water HEAT, clean and dust free…hot and cold water furnished…and delightful ‘easy to maintain’ kitchens with custom ‘furniture finish’ cabinets.” The ad says they’re for everybody from the “Sophisticate, Student, Professional, to the Suburbanite who has ‘cut enough grass….’” They’re a monument all right—to bad taste—and immaculately maintained, so they’ll last forever.
I put the clippings and photos back in the archive file, feeling ill at the shortsightedness and greed. Forget history and beauty and workmanship with materials impossible to come by now; move that house to Berkeley, or Hartford, or Evanston, and you’d be looking at several million dollars' profit. Of course, who could afford to maintain such a place here as a single-family home? Or even subdivided into apartments?
The Colonel had the same disregard for the past, by the way. When he built his mansion, it’s said, there was a log cabin on the site, the first structure in the county, lauded as a piece of civic history. He let it sit there next to his new house, until he had it moved to a city park, where it served as a hot dog stand for many years. Eventually it burned to the ground in an electrical fire.