Independence Hall is Philadelphia’s most famous and recognizable historic landmark. It is, of course, the building where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the U.S. Constitution was written, which makes it the birthplace of the United States of America and our democratic government and, indeed, the birthplace of modern democracy. The words and ideals of the Declaration and Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, inspired countless democratic movements and governments around the world. Also, in the 1790s, when Philadelphia was the capital of the nation, Independence Hall housed all three branches of our federal government, as well as, the city and state governments. Since the 1950s, this most famous and important of early American landmarks has been under the supervision of the National Park Service as part of Independence National Historical Park. The Park Service has been doing maintenance and renovation for some time, and has recently completed an 18-month renovation of the iconic clock tower atop the building, where the Liberty Bell rang out more than 235 years ago to announce the formation of the new republic.
Independence Hall was originally built as the colonial Pennsylvania statehouse in 1732. At that time it was the largest building in the colonies and was built in what was then the outskirts of Philadelphia’s developed portion. Of course, it wasn’t referred to as Independence Hall yet, as no one could have predicted the important events that would make it a world-famous landmark and U.N. World Heritage Site. It was furnished with a clock tower and British iron crafters Pass & Stowe fashioned a large bell at their foundry in England. The bell was delivered to the new colonial statehouse, in a ship owned by the Gratz family, shortly after the tower’s completion. That bell would be used not just to announce the passing of the hours, but to announce the creation of a new nation and a whole new era of democratic governance. After the bell became too fragile to use, it was put on display in the foyer of Independence Hall and became known as the Liberty Bell, a symbol of freedom and liberty throughout the world. The clock tower survived the American Revolution and British occupation of Philadelphia, but unfortunately, was taken away after the Revolutionary period. It was later rebuilt in 1828and designed by William Strickland (who later designed the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.) to match the original tower. Much of the original wood and brick from 1828 remain, but steel supports were added in the 20th century to ensure the tower’s stability.
The National Park Service determined it was time to do a major renovation of the tower some years ago. The wood on some sections of the tower was rotting or buckling and some of the original metal nails had rusted as well. Water was seeping into the tower and causing more damage. The renovation, which started in July, 2010, and was performed by Daniel J. Keating Co., replaced some of the wood and nails, but preserved as much of the original material as possible. The brick was repointed and some damaged bricks were replaced. New flashing was installed and caulking administered to keep out water. The glass faces of the clock were replaced, new wooden roofing shingles were installed, and the weather vane on top was reclad with new gold leaf. Several copper urns were refurbished and the lightning protection system was replaced with more modern technology.
While the work was being done on the tower, the scaffolding had a decorative scrim, with an architecturally accurate illustration of the tower, to demonstrate the tower’s design to tourists. Now, the scaffolding has been taken down and the tower is once again lit up at night. Also, the current bell, known as the Centennial Bell, once again rings out every hour, on the hour, during the day. As a former resident of that neighborhood, I often heard the toll of that bell, especially in the morning. The Park Service and the city decided to have a ceremony on Saturday, February 18th, to announce the completion of the renovation project and the renewed operation of the clock itself. After remarks from members of the Independence Park staff, Mayor Nutter, U.S. RepresentativesChaka Fattah and Bob Brady, and apparently Thomas Jefferson, the Centennial Bell rang again for the first time in more than a year and a half at 5PM, shortly after the clock was restarted during the ceremony. The mayor and several children cut the ceremonial ribbon, on the sidewalk in front of Independence Hall on Chestnut Street, as the bell was ringing above them. I took many pictures of the event, met Thomas Jefferson, and was even quoted on 6ABC Action News, when I was asked by reporter Kenneth Moton about my opinion of the completed renovation project. Previously, I had attended a community meeting in June, 2010, at the Independence Visitor’s Center, in which the renovation project was announced and I got to hold some wooden pegs and thick metal nails from the tower that were on display there. So, it was very exciting and quite an honor to be at the tower’s re dedication ceremony.