Musings on Preservation, Historic Context, & Philadelphia's Independence Hall

Posted on: April 12th, 2012 by Guest Writer

Written by Karri A. Sensenig

In my reading about the history of Philadelphia's Independence State Park (located directly in front of Independence Hall), I discovered that in the early 1900s, when the park was first proposed, the architects decided that the actual setting of Independence Hall wasn't good enough and set about creating what they determined to be a "fitting setting" -- by clearing the half-block of buildings between Chestnut Street and Ludlow Street in front of the Hall.

Philadelphia's Independence Hall, in it's current context. (Photo: IceNineJon on Flickr)

Early proponents of Independence Hall's preservation recognized that the surrounding low-lying vernacular architecture stood in stark contrast to the iconic brick structure, what it represented, and what the public's expectations were regarding its preservation. So they tore them all down to "beautify" the area and set a proper stage for the feeling they wanted to create.

But what's so terribly notable about making judgement-based changes and improvements as we preserve buildings and places? Don't we do that all the time? Absolutely. 

We set out to preserve a piece of our history, and along the way often make changes and judgment calls based on our aesthetic, historic, or cultural preferences. We don't always preserve the way a building or place actually looked. Sometimes, what we're actually preserving is our own nostalgic idea of what it would have, should have, or could have looked like.

Clark's Inn (also known as State House Tavern, Coach and Horses, and The Half Moon) was built in 1693 and was a common gathering spot for assemblymen and officials from the State House (Independence Hall) across the street. It is rumored that William Penn himself used to smoke his pipe on the front stoop. (Photo: Library of Congress)

If we aren't preserving the way it actually was, is it still historic preservation? Or is it revisionist history? Alternately, what if we preserve the way a building first appeared, but disregard what it became over the years?

If expanding historic preservation to include the experiences and perspectives of all the people who lived it (i.e., minority groups like African-Americans, Polish-Americans, and women) is often met with cries of "revisionist history!," why wouldn't an actual revision of history -- as in the case of Independence Hall's street context -- be met with such resistance? Is it so important to us to maintain the sense of history we've grown to accept that we're willing to overlook its inaccuracies?

Perhaps most importantly, what are we losing in our attempts to hold on?

With the creation of a "fitting setting" for Independence Hall, we may have created a more regal approach to and grander vista from the nearly 250-year-old hall that helped give birth to our nation. But what did we lose in the process?

When we cleared away the surrounding buildings "whose diversity is only surpassed by their ugliness" (as described in The Architectural Record in 1908), it's possible we lost a golden opportunity to showcase the very point of our nation -- embracing and valuing diversity without holding any single part of that eclectic whole as more "fitting" than another.

Karri A. Sensenig credits her interest in historic preservation to her upbringing in the traditional culture of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. When she isn't homeschooling her four children, playing volleyball, or reading, Karri writes for online and print publications at both the Central Pennsylvania Preservation Society and Historic Restorations, where a version of this post first appeared.

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