Constituting Mediocrity: the new National Constitution Center

It's obvious that the Center is just a holding pen for big bus trips. It's not as much a museum or national shrine as it is a highway rest stop. On your left's the super-sized cafeteria, on your right the store for crappy hats and t-shirts. And for this we rip up Philadelphia?


072503-CC-1So today my mother and I decided to walk over and see the new National Constitution Center on Independence Mall. It's opening day was a bit famous for a large prop crashing down on the heads of the assembled dignitaries and we wanted to see if the Center itself lived up to such an auspicious start.
It's a particularly dismal walk from the main downtown part of Philadelphia to Independence Mall. For those of you who don't know the city or the history, whole neighborhoods were razed in the 1950s to create a park-like atmosphere with long vistas gazing onto the old state house where the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution were both drafted and signed (it wasn't until much later that the attractive but unassuming brick building was renamed "Independence Hall":http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independence_Hall). This was a thriving area with lots of funky nineteenth century buildings, some of them of architectural interest, and if they had been left standing the buildings and location would have made this one of the most exciting and happening neighborhoods of Philly. Instead it's all asphalt parking lots and oversized institutional buildings. Lived history was ripped out to make room for a pre-packaged "History" that never was. It would have been much easier to imagine the bustle and hum of the 1776 streets of Philadelphia if they were still lived-in and thriving, but adventurous tourists have to walk a half mile west into Chinatown to get a taste of the chaos of real city life, now and then.
The "Mall" concept surround Independence Hall has always been a big flop. Grand vistas became long and sketchy parks which you didn't want to visit after dark, filled with fountains where few kids ever waded. It's largely because of the failure of the past rip-it/flatten-it/sod-it mentality that the new Constitution Center was built. It's nicer than the barrenness that was there, but it's still a giant pavillion air-dropped in the crater of what was a city, the whole thing surrounded with oversized institutional office boxes (the concrete-barricaded federal building and mint, a few TV studios). There's little real connection to the vibrant city a few blocks away. (It's like nearby Atlantic City, another real city that was turned inside-out to market to tourists, who are now brought in on air-conditioned buses and deposited directly onto the windowless casino floors, never to know there's a real city outside.)
When my mother and I walked along the entry way to the Constitution Center we gazed into the windows to get a sense of what we were about to see. All we saw in there was a generic cafeteria. We should have gotten the hint but we carried along inside anyway. After being checked by security we walked into the Center to find... nothing.
072503-CC-2It's empty. The most prominent feature upon entering is the list of corporate sponsors. Then there are the auditoriums arranged around the central hall, all named after benefactors like Walter Annenberg. My mother and I sort of piroetted around the main area trying to figure out where to go. There was a curving staircase welcoming us to the second floor so we walked up. There we saw a empty balcony. We glanced right and finally found something--a room with life-sized bronze statues of the founding fathers. Cheesy and kind of stupid but we're here so we walk in.
Bad idea. Some young staff person rushes up to us and says we can't go in. We need tickets to go in there. Tickets are sold downstairs. We can't see a statue of Thomas Jefferson without paying $6. Here we are in a federal museum plastered in corporate names and we have to _pay_ to see some _statues_? We turn to walk around the long balcony to see if there's anything in the non-ticketed area on the other side. It's only a second entrance to the statues. The young woman rushes up to us to tell us we can't go in that way either, we need the tickets, etc., etc. I ask one of the other staffers if there's anything here worth seeing that doesn't need a ticket but he has no answer. Sigh...
We do find something free however. As we walked out we noticed that the gift shop is free. Thank you Uncle Sam.
It's obvious that the Center is just a holding pen for big bus trips. It's not as much a museum or national shrine as it is a highway rest stop. On your left's the super-sized cafeteria, on your right the store for crappy hats and t-shirts. And for this we rip up Philadelphia?
Further reading:
Travels in Philadelphia by Christopher Morley. Morley's more known for the vignettes he wrote of New York City life in the 1920s, but he started out in Philadelphia. He had an eye for seeing the colorful explosion of life being lived where politicians saw nothing but tenements and flop-houses. Some of the neighborhoods he profiled so lovingly are underneath the sod and asphalt of Independence Mall and the nearby interstates.
(Personal note: my great-grandfather owned and managed a hotel in the area back in the late 1800s. I once got the street number and tracked it down, only to find an offramp for the Vine Street Expressway. So much for family history. So much for Philly history.)

  • mheenan

    wow, quite a cyn­i­cal review of one of our cities newest land­marks and gate­ways to his­to­ry. Ive lived in philly for more than 15 years now. I grew up not a stones throw across the Ben Franklin Bridge, and have enjoyed the city since before i can remem­ber. The cyn­ic men­tions “all asphalt park­ing lots” sur­round­ing Inde­pen­dence mall?? there are no such park­ing lots. he men­tions that you have to go half a mile north to chi­na­town for a taste of the city?? what about old city? what about the exten­sive blocks of 18th and 19th cen­tu­ry his­toric homes just south of there around Soci­ety Hill? Bet­sy Ross’ house, Christ Church, Inde­pen­dence Nation­al His­toric Park, let alone Wash­ing­ton Square and the tomb of the unknown sol­dier are all must see stops when look­ing for the his­to­ry and cul­ture of the birth­place of lib­er­ty. Elfreth’s Alley is one of the old­est con­tin­u­al­ly inhab­it­ed res­i­den­tial streets in all of the unit­ed states (dat­ing back to the 1700’s). Old St. Joseph’s Church is the old­est Catholic church in the city, and only 2 blocks away. I can­not argue that there were price­less his­tor­i­cal build­ings torn down to make room for the mall, but with­out it we would have the venue to show the world every­thing else the city has to offer. I love this Philadel­phia and would hate to have some­one read the above review and decide not to come see the city of broth­er­ly love.

  • jschell722

    I was at the cen­ter and found it quite mov­ing. The pre­sen­ta­tions were out­stand­ing and any­one with a love for our nation and our found­ing doc­u­ments would agree. It is a shame that the author of this post felt it lacked the “pizazz” of a video arcade. Per­haps he could play a PSP or Game­boy while walk­ing through some of the most pro­found his­to­ry exhibits on the plan­et and then he would be ade­quate­ly stimulated.