The new National Constitution Center is billed as a museum of ideas rather than artifacts—but it might have remained just an idea if not for alumnus Joe Torsella.

When Joe Torsella C’86 was 12 years old he wanted to be a magician. The budding Houdini studied books, enrolled in professional organizations, and saved his allowance to buy props—developing what he calls “a good little gig” that was also fairly profitable. “I still have the business cards: Joseph M. Torsella: Magic For All Occasions,” he chuckles. “To be honest, there wasn’t much competition in Berwick,” the small town in north-central Pennsylvania’s rural Columbia County where he grew up. The young Torsella entertained at birthday parties, church suppers, Rotary Club meetings and, at one point, (“to show you how obsessive I got,” he smiles) raised his own doves in the basement. “It was definitely a crowd pleaser when I produced fluttering doves from silk hankies,” he reminisces proudly. “And that,” he is quick to clarify, “is actually a trick of skill, not of props.”

This past July, the charismatic 39-year old pulled off a considerably more amazing trick—also a matter of skill—when he made what he calls “a museum of ideas” appear on Independence Mall in Philadelphia.

As president and CEO of the National Constitution Center (NCC)—a $185 million, 160,000 square foot interactive museum and landmark—Torsella has spent the past seven years bringing what had been a moribund project to vibrant life. Writing in The New York Times, Witold Rybczynski, the Martin and Margy Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at Penn, deemed the Center “destined to take its place among the nation’s leading public monuments.”

(There was a little prop-trouble at the opening day ceremonies on July 4, though. A wooden arch framing the stage fell when dignitaries pulled ribbons to officially open the museum. It missed Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was there to speak and receive an award, but injured a couple of others, including Philadelphia Mayor John Street, whose arm was hurt, and Torsella, who was hit on the head.)

The saga of the Constitution Center begins in 1988, when Congress passed the Constitution Heritage Act, directing the creation, in Philadelphia, of a “nonpartisan, nonprofit organization … to increase awareness and understanding of the Constitution.” But most of a decade passed with little concrete progress. When Torsella took the reins, in January 1997, the project was, as then-Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell C’65 Hon’00 says, “floundering.”

Under Torsella’s leadership, the Center restructured its finances and operations; recruited a team of scholarly advisers that included Supreme Court Justices O’Connor, Stephen Breyer, and Antonin Scalia, as well as Penn history professor and former College dean Richard R. Beeman (who served as vice chair); selected and hired world-class designers for the building and exhibits (Henry Cobb of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners and Ralph Appelbaum of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, respectively), built nationally recognized programming for students and adults; forged partnerships with institutions ranging from the National Park Service to local hotels and restaurants, and, prop mishaps notwithstanding, opened on time and on budget on July 4, 2003, with a talented staff, polished operations, and a healthy operating endowment in place.

Like the trick with the doves, it was a crowd pleaser.

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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/04/03

The House That Joe Built
By Kathryn Levy Feldman
Photography by Candace diCarlo

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