Slouching Toward Independence
Stalled after 9/11, the master plan for Independence Mall is finally being built.
By Alex Ulam
John Costello, Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Photographer
Independence Mall, a three-block-long section of Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, is a place that
celebrates the founding of the nation and the liberties enshrined in the United
States Constitution. The Mall was created in the twentieth century to pay
tribute to two of the country’s most venerable icons: Independence Hall, where
the Second Constitutional Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, and
the Liberty Bell, which was rung to announce the first public reading of the
document, and which, later, during the nineteenth century, became a symbol of
the abolition movement.
But the Mall is also a place where the actions of powerful
men have left scars on Philadelphia’s landscape as well as the nation’s psyche.
The original White House, where George Washington and John Adams served their
presidencies, was located on the first block of what is now the Mall. It was in
this executive mansion that George Washington kept slaves and also signed the
Fugitive Slave Act, one of the most onerous bills ever enacted against African
slaves. The Slave Act made it possible for escaped slaves in states where
slavery was not permitted, such as Pennsylvania, to be returned to their
In the 1940s, a group of prominent Philadelphians lobbied
Pennsylvania officials to create the Mall through an act of urban renewal that
would be unthinkable today. All of the properties that had occupied the site
were eventually seized through eminent domain and razed. The intent was to
build a dramatic approach toward Independence Hall akin to the National Mall in
Washington, D.C. However, instead of creating a grand promenade, planners built
a hodgepodge landscape that divided neighborhoods and served as a no-man’s-land
Now Independence Mall is being redesigned, and the history
of what took place there is being revised. The city of Philadelphia and the National
Park Service (NPS) are in the final stages of implementing a 1997 master plan
for the Mall by landscape architect Laurie Olin, FASLA, which will have cost an
estimated $300 million when complete. The northernmost block of the Mall, which
was originally designed by Dan Kiley, has already been completely rebuilt.
Parts of the Mall’s other two blocks have also been redesigned, and a
substantial portion of the unfinished sections is under construction.
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