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Day Tripper: The Liberty Bell Tolls For You

The Liberty Bell Center presents storied object in fascinating new context

Have you ever actually seen the Liberty Bell? You’ve heard about it, maybe you read about it during history class, or seen iconic images of it, but have you actually seen it?

Now is a great time to check it out and Jeffrey Lew of the architectural firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, the project architect for the Liberty Bell Center, which has housed the bell and exhibited it to the public, explained how the impressive home for the bell came about.

“The 1997 master plan of Independence Mall envisioned the making of a great American place in the heart of Philadelphia’s historic district. In keeping with this spirit, the program of a new building on the mall to house the Liberty Bell demanded a distinctly American building, seamlessly connected to this place, to the city and to the collective memory of events that took place here,” Lew said.

Opened in Oct. 2003, the $11 million Liberty Bell Center provides a larger home for the bell, and an exciting and authentic visitor experience. Accessible by day and illuminated at night, the 12,000-square-foot structure honors the bell’s significance as the nation’s most cherished icon of freedom. “The building’s architecture and its comprehensive exhibits respond to the history-laden site, context and circumstance, giving form to the client’s mission to bring the story of the bell and its importance in U.S. history to larger and more diverse audiences,” Lew said.

You’ve seen it before in numerous places but you’ve probably never actually seen the Liberty Bell in person. That will change when you make it your Day Tripper day trip of the week.

DAY TRIPPER DIGEST

Estimated Travel Time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Why it’s Worth the Trip:  Experience a piece of history in a breathtaking setting while, at the same time, taking in Philadelphia, one of the country’s great major cities.

You’ll Probably Get Hungry:  Try Latin/Asian fusion cuisine at Chifa, homestyle Italian food and a drink at LaScala’s, a wide variety of tastes like Tandoori chicken, fried chicken and waffles, or spicy jambalaya at Jones, or the elegant Japanese food found at Morimoto. If that’s more than you were looking for, get a nice soft-serve ice cream cone at Dairy Queen.

While you’re in the Area:  There are stores to visit, but you’re in a city that is steeped in history. Why spend your day shopping when you can visit the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, the National Liberty Museum, the Philadelphia History Museum, the National Museum of American Jewish History, or embark on a Ghost Tour?  

The Liberty Bell was originally placed in the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House in 1752, and had the Biblical epigram cast on its side, "Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."

It originally cracked when first rung after arrival in Philadelphia. Over time, it developed its own legendary status; first to summon lawmakers to legislative sessions, and then later through the fictionalized symbolism involved with the signing of the Declaration of Independence (it did not signal the “tolling of America’s independence,” as is often told, yet has become an inextricable part of American mythology).

Now, as a part of the Liberty Bell Center, the bell has a home that stands up to the grandeur of the artifact, and the dreams of those who created and used it. Architect Jeffrey Lew described the design and the ambitions for making the home structure commensurate to the emotional connection so many have for the bell itself. “While providing an urban edge along Sixth Street to the west and a cornerstone to the mall, the building offers a sylvan pavilion for park visitors. Contemporary, and yet resonating with the eighteenth and nineteenth-century architectural traditions of the city, the brick, stone and glass building is an open, humanly scaled place of gathering and community,” Lew said.

The story of the bell and the visitor’s personal encounter with this transcendent object are enveloped in three architectural elements: a covered outdoor interpretive area, an elongated rectilinear exhibit hall and a tapered cubic volume housing the bell chamber. Glass walls and a metal-clad wood roof join a brick and stone-paved arborway and sun-shading trellises to form the building’s enclosure. “The visitor’s experience unfolds along an undulating granite wall that is reminiscent of Jefferson’s serpentine wall. The bell’s making, its historical significance, and its universal meaning are presented through a series of interactive and informative exhibits. There are places for foreign visitors to hear the story of the bell in their native languages and for large groups to assemble for special presentations,” Lew said.

“The inclined floor plane of the exhibit area conforms to the contour of the exterior landscape visible through generous windows opening onto the mall. The visitors’ path rises gently to a plateau where the glass and marble chamber houses the bell. Here it is seen against the compelling backdrop of nearby eighteenth-century Independence Hall and its tower where the bell once hung. In the chamber’s expansive architectural volume a great window reinforces the intimate relationship of hall and bell, making the bell’s importance explicit.

“On the exterior, a delicately detailed scrim of sunlight-controlling vanes shelters the bell chamber’s glass vitrine enclosure. The extended roof plane visors the enclosure, shielding the bell from the south sun. Cupped walls of white marble embrace the bell, creating an intimate environment for both individuals and larger audiences to view the bell and reflect on its meaning.”

If you have only seen the Liberty Bell in a depiction, or on television, this is a fantastic opportunity to finally see it, and in an enclosure that promises to be as inspiring as the object itself. Jeffrey Lew summed up the desire to create a fully immersive event. “Visitors exit the bell chamber along the final segment of the serpentine wall, emerging near the southwest corner of the mall, well positioned to continue their visit to the park’s other important sites and the surrounding historic city. Place, architecture and icon join to make a moving and memorable experience.”

For more information, visit: The Liberty Bell Center.

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