The Recreation
of Independence Mall

When it comes to city parks, there are happy triumphs, noble disappointments, and failures so resounding that even the squirrels scratch their heads. Then there’s Independence Mall.

As a case study in the erasure of urban vitality, the chronicle of Philadelphia’s downtown national historic park is hard to beat. In the 1950s more than 500 buildings were demolished to open the three-block corridor of green space, which was surrounded by a moat of asphalt and a cold collection of mid-rise buildings that for the most part failed to engage the street. The City Planning Commission chose a formalistic Beaux Arts landscaping scheme to encourage a monumental view of Independence Hall—“a building,” wrote Lewis Mumford, “whose architectural boasts are much more modest than its historical claims.” High-rises built to the south of the Hall soon overwhelmed its low profile, and except for lines of tourists who tended to come and go as quickly as they could, the park attracted little use. In 1971, Judge Edwin O. Lewis, the driving force behind the formation of Independence Mall, wondered aloud whether he had “created a Frankenstein’s monster.”

This is the place the Olin Partnership has been charged with resurrecting. Nearly a decade after the National Park Service commissioned a new master plan, the final paving stones and native plants are being plugged into the ground. They add up to a radical departure from the park’s previous incarnation.

The symmetry that characterized the original design has been done away with. A new Liberty Bell pavilion lines the west side of the block nearest to Independence Hall, allowing visitors to lift their eyes from the cracked bell to take in a diagonal view of Independence Hall framed by sky instead of backlit buildings. A visitor’s center proceeds down the same axis on the next block north, which in turn gives way to architect Henry Cobb’s National Constitution Center.

The park’s eastern edge has been reforested, in a sense, with a shifting palette of hardwoods and understory trees drawn from the valleys and watercourses of Philadelphia’s hinterland. Thus what Olin has called the “phantom colonial purity” of the original scheme has been swapped for a somewhat more naturalistic interpretation of the site’s history. As Olin Partnership associate Jean Weston points out, “When Independence Hall was first built, Philadelphia ended here. If you look at maps, Independence Hall was right on the edge of town. So it was urban on one side and rural on the other.” Olin’s design, by juxtaposing a city scale on one side of the lawn with intimations of the American forest on the other, seeks to recapitulate that landscape in symbolic terms.

“I think what it says is that Laurie is starting to branch out into more poetic interpretations of landscape,” says historic-preservation and urban-studies professor George Thomas Gr’75. “Getting away from the grid and towards a
richer imagery.”

In practical terms, however, “one goal was to get visitors off these four blocks and into the city,” Weston says. “Surveys had shown that most of the visitors to Independence Hall came off I-95, spent all of their time right here, and then popped back on I-95.” That called for reconfiguring the traffic flow around the perimeter, particularly on Chestnut Street, where continuous left-turn lanes at the park’s southeast and southwest corners made pedestrian crossings a nightmare. Now the sidewalk has been expanded and tour buses have been rerouted in hopes of reintegrating the mall into the urban fabric and beckoning tourists deeper into Center City.

Whether the new vision for Independence Mall will resonate with visitors and city dwellers remains to be seen, but either way, the designers responsible for bringing it about will have to live at close quarters with the results. From their offices atop the Public Ledger Building, it’s what they see whenever they look away from their latest drawing and peer out through the window. —T.P.

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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 06/28/07