This presentation was part of A Century of Design in the Parks Symposium, Santa Fe, New Mexico, June 21-23, 2016.
By Cynthia MacLeod
Congress’s 1948 legislation for Independence National Historical Park (INHP) opened opportunities for a new kind of national park. The efforts of Philadelphians to establish and then be involved in the design of the federal park have been sustained through generations. The federal designation of approximately 50 acres in Philadelphia, with Independence Hall at the core, highlighted history and national landmarks, championed partnerships, and was planned also to revitalize private investment in neighboring historic properties and to establish connector green spaces between federal property and city property. Those were new ideas in 1948. Design opinions from local and federal experts were not always in sync but all agreed that the new park would be a major civic improvement. Architectural and landscape design have been conscientiously edited and selected in every phase of the park’s physical evolution from the 1950s to the current day and have been precedent setting in many ways. Interestingly, while the significance of events and historic buildings are the raison d’etre for the park, the green spaces have proven to be of vital importance. By most accounts the original goals for the park have been realized.
First, massive building demolition sparked some controversy that occasionally echoes today. Then, colonial revival design walls and gates, which are probably mistaken today as 18th century elements, were constructed to knit the city blocks into a subtly identifiable whole park and associated properties, like Christ Church cemetery and Washington Square. Advocates for formal axes (Edmund Bacon) won with the creation of open land to the north of Independence Hall, while advocates for use of historic street patterns and an urban sense of enclosure (Charles Peterson) could see their vision realized in the treatment of property east of Independence Hall, in ground level pavement, and in low brick wall outlines of missing buildings. Numerous historic structures were restored to their original appearance and some almost completely reconstructed. Venturi and Scott-Brown’s Franklin Court provided innovation in design rather than reconstruction of historic buildings, while using traditional materials. New gardens received special treatment from partners.
In 1997 there was both an opportunity to reexamine the mall design and an obligation to fix a location miscalculation of the park visitor center. Non-federal money enabled the mall to be redesigned in the late 1990s through the OLIN Partnership and other prominent architectural firms (Bohlin-Cywinski-Jackson, KMW, and Pei). This redesign was informed by a rigorous public engagement process for a master plan and adhered to the original vista concept. The new visitor center was built on the mall in 2001; in 2003 a building to house the Liberty Bell was constructed on the west side of the mall (and amended to interpret the Presidents’ House site); and the Independence Mall landscape was re-designed, and bookended in 2000 at the north end of the third block by the National Constitution Center/museum, that breaks from tradition in its form. Ideas new in 1948 have been sustained and are still proving their worth even if perspective on the novelty has changed.
Cynthia MacLeod is an architectural historian and park manager who has been Superintendent of Independence National Historical Park since February 2008, Richmond National Battlefield Park and the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site 1990-2008, and acting superintendent of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2014. Cindy has been a member of numerous task forces for cultural resource projects throughout the National Park Service and internationally.
She has a master’s degree in architectural history from the University of Virginia and a bachelor’s degree from Duke University. In 2003 she successfully completed the Senior Executive Service candidate development program.