By Lou Mancinelli
While it is associated with the symbols of American freedom, we don’t really know exactly what the assembly room in Independence Hall looked like in the 1770s. This, of course, was when John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and 53 other delegates who convened in Philadelphia signed the Declaration of Independence. Nor do we know for sure exactly when the Liberty Bell actually cracked, although it is believed that the 2,000-pound bell cracked when it was being tested. It was made in England in the 1750s.
“Images of America: Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell” (Arcadia Books, 2012), co-authored by Mt. Airy resident and Chestnut Hill Historical Society archivist Alex Bartlett, and Robert Sands Jr., a collection consultant at the Trenton City Museum, documents the photographical history of the hall and the bell.
The pair presented their photographs and hosted a book signing Thursday, Sept. 20, at the Flourtown Presbyterian Church on behalf of the Springfield Township Historical Society, where Bartlett serves on the board of directors.
Our best sense of what the interior of Independence Hall, located at 520 Chestnut St. in Old City, looked like during the Revolutionary War era comes from a combination of interpretations of period artwork and imagination. The earliest photos of the Liberty Bell surfaced around 1870. At least two different legends, one associated with an 1824 visit from Revolutionary War General Lafayette, the other with Washington’s 1846 birthday celebration, date the crack decades before.
“The bell and the hall as symbols as freedom,” said Bartlett, who earned a master’s degree in museum communications in 2009 from the University of the Arts, during a recent interview. “Those symbols scream so loudly.”
Bartlett, who has lived in Mt. Airy for all of his 41 years, said there have been plenty of books about each subject published individually, but few cover both. And when they do, the books are full of technical and academic jargon.
The authors composed the book in order to bridge the two symbols and to reach a wider audience than scholars and architectural and historical enthusiasts, including the thousands of international travelers who visit Philadelphia’s historic sites each year. The authors met during a 2008 internship with the National Parks Service.
They had access to vast archives of photographs of the hall and bell and often talked about how interested they both would be in a photographical history of the two. Sands had already published two “Images in America” books, and “he suggested that he and I be the ones to put it together,” said Bartlett. “We started feverishly working on the text around April of last year.”
The book tells the narrative of an Independence Hall, designed by Edmund Woolley and Andrew Hamilton, that has undergone various large transformations since it was started in 1732, constructed in stages and completed in 1755.
The hall first served as the home of the Pennsylvania State Legislature, which commissioned its construction. The hall remained in that capacity until 1799, when it began to house the city government of Philadelphia. In 1812, its east and west wings were leveled, and fireproof structures consisting of office and storage space built in their place. Workers renovated the interior of Independence Hall for use as office and meeting space.
In 1854, the city consolidated the various townships of Philadelphia county, of which Chestnut Hill was included, into the city. That swelled the number of workers inside Independence Hall, which was alleviated in the early 1870s with the construction of City Hall. But by then, Independence Hall had fallen into a minor state of disrepair.
It was revitalized for the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876. By 1896 it had been vacated by city offices. Since then, there have been various preservation efforts by different groups who recognized the historical significance of the building and the need to restore it to its original design.
In the late 1890s the Daughters of the American Revolution hired architect T. Melon Rogers to restore the structure to its Revolutionary era state. Rogers wanted to rebuild the east and west wings. While there existed some pre-construction room plans, historians have not discovered as-built plans or plans documenting the design and dimensions of Independence Hall once it had been completed. As such, the dimensions of Rogers’ restorations of the wings are inaccurate. They are slightly too large, according to Bartlett, who said that as far as he knows, this error remains uncorrected.
Architects from the Architects Institute of America (AIA) restored much of the interior during the World War I years. And in 2004 and 2005, Bartlett was part of the crew that oversaw the lighting, wiring and draining excavation and restoration of Independence Hall.
As for the bell, the Pennsylvania Assembly commissioned it in 1752. It was rung throughout the city to keep time and announce special events. It arrived in 1753 and hung in the tower, which was reconstructed and fixed with the famous clock face in 1828, until 1850.
Almost as interesting as the question as whether the crack in the Liberty Bell carries any symbolic significance is the question as to how the bell and the hall came to be associated with historical significance and individual meaning in the first place.
It was in the early 1830s that abolitionists in the American Anti-Slavery Society in Massachusetts started to use the bell as a symbol of freedom. “Before that, it was referred to as the ‘old state house bell,’” according to Bartlett. Later, following centennial celebrations in 1876, the bell toured the nation, where delegates at various exhibitions from New Orleans to Chicago to Charleston, Boston and eventually San Francisco in 1915 heralded it as a totem of American liberty.
What is it about humans that leads us to mine meaning out of inanimate objects? How has the Liberty Bell, created simply to remind people of the hour of the day, come to stand for the perception of liberty that supposedly saturates the character of America and awakens the inspiration of foreigners?
“Images of America: Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell” is available through amazon.com. But assuming the purchaser lives in Chestnut Hill or Mt. Airy, Bartlett will drop it off in person. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org