Like any other national park throughout the country, Independence National Historical Park has a long wish list of goals it would like to see come to fruition. But the cash-strapped park is the first to admit that doesn’t mean it have the resources for big-time projects.
“We don’t have enough money to build new things,” says Winston Clement, the park’s historical architect. “So we focus instead on the critical needs.”
And there are a lot of them. After recently finishing a roof restoration of the historic Independence Hall, the park continues to eye renovations of other sites, everything from restoring the Market Street Houses to repairing walkways to planting 76 new (donated) trees throughout the 55-acre park.
But some major projects are just too big for the park to handle on its own. A recent editorial written by Paul Steinke of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia stated that the park is sitting on a $49 million backlog of deferred maintenance items. That’s a problem when the park’s annual operating budget is less than half that number, at $23 million, according to Clement.
And with more than 5 million visitors last year—a 17 percent increase from 2015—and more new development surrounding the park, the staff at Independence National Historical Park is well aware that changes are coming.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in visitation, and as the population increases around here, that’ll continue,” says Leslie Obleschuk, the park’s acting public affairs officer.
That’s why the park has turned to non-profit organizations for outside help on their big undertakings. For example, it recently convinced Friends of Independence National Historical Park to bring the enormous Bicentennial Bell back out of storage.
Bring the bell back
The bell was given as a gift to the U.S. from U.K. as part of the Bicentennial Celebration of 1976. For years, it was stationed in a tower located at what’s now the home of the Museum of the American Revolution. In 2013, it was placed in storage, where it’s remained ever since.
“They realized that they wanted to bring it back to the park and put it back on display, but they didn’t want to put it back in tower where no one could see it,” says project manager Maiti Gallen. “That’s when they got Friends involved and said, ‘Here’s what we hope for, what do you think?’”
With Friends on board, the park plans to turn the Benjamin Rush Garden at 3rd and Walnut streets into the new home of the 12,446-pound, 5-foot-tall Bicentennial Bell, which is five times bigger than the Liberty Bell.
The project plans to make the bell available to the public 24/7 and revitalize the garden, which Gallen acknowledges “has some challenges.” The multi-tiered space is not ADA friendly, and much of its history (it was the site of Dr. Benjamin Rush’s home) goes without much recognition.
Says Gallen, “The park in general is about education, and we want the garden to tell its story.”
The return of the First Bank
Another story the national park and Friends wants to tell sits not far from the Benjamin Rush Park at 120 S. 3rd Street. The First Bank of the United States has been closed to the public for the past 30 years, falling into disrepair.
It’s estimated to cost $27 million to repair the stately structure, which dates back to the late 18th century when it was run by none other than Alexander Hamilton. Gallen ticks off the long list of repairs required: “All of the mechanical systems need to be replaced, we want to rehab the windows, help with the roof, and preserve the eagle at the top of the building that’s carved out of mahogany.”
But architect Winston Clement notes that unlike some of the buildings that were constructed for the Bicentennial, the park’s 300-year-old buildings like the First Bank “are built to last.” For the most part, Clement adds the First Bank is “in as good shape today as it was when it first opened.”
Looking ahead to 2026
Both the Bicentennial Bell Project and the First Bank restoration are still in the beginning stages of fundraising, and Philly is still at least five to six years away from seeing any major changes at both sites, says Gallen.
But 2026 will be the biggest year for Independence National Historical Park. The park will be in the spotlight for USA250, the country’s celebration of its 250th anniversary of independence.
Gallen says, “I think it’s all of our hopes and dreams that we want” to open both the new garden and the First Bank by then.
Meanwhile, the park’s neighborhood continues to change and quite literally grow—Scannapieco Development’s 500 Walnut is on the rise near Independence Hall and the same developer has proposed another high-rise next to the Merchants’ Exchange Building, which serves as the park’s headquarters.
The park only hopes to benefit from the changes, says Clement. But for now, preservation is its priority. “We prioritize and do what we need to do to make sure the buildings last forever.”