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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

June 2006 Issue

Slouching Toward Independence
Stalled after 9/11, the master plan for Independence Mall is finally being built.

By Alex Ulam

Slouching Toward Independence 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 masters.

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 for decades.

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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