Historic Preservation

Posted June 1, 2020
  • The Mitchell/Giurgola Liberty Bell Pavilion, Exterior View, no date

    Photo credit: the Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

  • A view down the nave-like hallway of the Pavilion

    Photo credit: Jack Boucher, HABS Survey PA-6712

  • A view of the Liberty Bell through a glass window of the Pavilion

    Photo credit: Jack Boucher, HABS Survey PA-6712

  • Frank Matero, Chair of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation

Closing Out Preservation Month with Frank Matero

In honor of National Preservation Month, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia is featuring 31 historic preservation leaders in Philadelphia and the local buildings that have inspired them. To finish up the month, the Preservation Alliance highlighted the Chair of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation Frank Matero and his choice: The [former] Liberty Bell Pavilion on Independence Mall, demolished in 1998. Read Frank's words on the lasting impression that Mitchell/Giurgola's Pavilion had on him as a student as well as its impact on greater exhibition design below.

For generations of tourists, any visit to Philadelphia included the requisite pilgrimage to the icons of democracy including the Liberty Bell. But the country’s Bicentennial offered a fresh face to that history. As a first year grad student in Columbia University’s Historic Preservation program, our trip to Philadelphia in 1976 was memorable including Venturi Scott Brown’s Franklin Court and Mitchell/Giurgola’s Liberty Bell Pavilion. That first image of the sleek granite and glass box stayed with me far longer than the bell it housed or even the very buildings the park celebrated. Years later, now a Philadelphia resident, the demolition of the pavilion sparked my interest into how this small gem came to be and then vanished overnight.

Since its removal from public service almost 100 years after its creation, the Liberty Bell has been on public display. Perhaps not surprising for a physical symbol of such exalted ideals as liberty, freedom, and independence, the Bell has always been displayed as artifact; a secular relic whose physical presence is proof of the events it signaled and witnessed. As early as 1874 and again in 1924 and the 1960s, a separate structure was proposed to house the bell, however these were all abandoned leaving the bell in its cramped space in Independence Hall stair tower. In 1969 during planning for the Bicentennial, NPS officials believed the expected number of tourists could not be accommodated in the small space. Again they proposed that the Bell be moved to a new visitor center a few blocks away. The opposition to this plan resulted in the Mitchell/Giurgola pavilion located on Independence Mall directly in front of the Bell’s original location. Aldo Giurgola’s design for the Liberty Bell Pavilion was misunderstood by the public from the beginning. The most visible of all the new projects included in the Bicentennial make-over of Independence National Historical Park, the architects conceived and built the structure in record time in a little over one year.

Reversing over 100 years of exalted presentation, Giurgola literally brought the bell down to earth, mounting it on a simple pair of stanchions and placing it in a low transparent pavilion in a garden with a simultaneous view to Independence Hall. Transparency allowed the icon to be visible continuously to the public, much like crystal reliquaries in the Middle Ages. Program dictated plan whereby visitors were first brought through an entry vestibule into a waiting hall and down a nave-like corridor until finally coming to the bell chamber. The pavilion’s dumbbell axiality was both functional and psychologically effective in building visitor expectations. Information on site was kept to a minimum; interpretation was largely verbal and the emotional experience of seeing and touching the Bell was dominant. As realized, the elegant structure was built of materials in concert with the pavilion’s eighteenth century context—American granite, oak, lead-coated copper, glass and plaster. The complex roof articulated the interior space while providing shelter for the lines of visitors waiting outside to enter. Progressive Architecture summed up the intent of the designers by describing the pavilion as “…a simple, reticent space that does not draw attention to itself, but directs it to the Liberty Bell and Independence Mall which, after all, are what one comes to see.”

In 1998, as part of a larger effort to re-envision Independence Mall, the Liberty Bell was relocated to a new home on the green which expanded interpretation into a full museum exhibition on the Bell’s history and its symbolism. Giurgola’s late modernist box was demolished in favor of a new form for a new program and display. His installation set a standard of exhibition that summed up an entire generation’s approach to display favoring experience over interpretation. His pavilion was in effect an open-ended memory container which invited visitors to bring their own interpretations to the concepts of liberty as delivered up in the presence of this great American icon