“I kept moving back my departure date,” Torsella explains. At first it was until “the finances turned around,” then it was “until we selected the architect,” then it was “until we got the plans in place.” The truth was that, early on, Torsella was hooked on the Constitution and its most crucial idea—the vision of popular sovereignty captured in the phrase, We the People.

The challenge, as he saw it, was to create an interactive experience where visitors would learn the story of the Constitution’s past, experience the power of its present, and leave empowered to help participate in its future. “The way I’ve always thought of the National Constitution Center is a place where you go and enter as a visitor but leave as a citizen,” he says. “The idea captured my heart in a way I never knew it would. I wish my father were still alive so I could tell him that I finally got a job that made use of my history degree.”

According to John C. Bogle, founder of the Vanguard Group and founding trustee and chairman of the NCC, the idea for a Constitution center actually dates back to September 18, 1886, “barely a year before the Constitution’s centennial” when it was proposed by a “Convention of the Governors of the Thirteen States,” who were meeting in Philadelphia. They determined that on the occasion of the Constitution’s centennial in 1887, “A major oration should be read, a commemorative poem commissioned, there should be military and industrial displays, and that a ‘permanent memorial to the Constitution should be erected in Philadelphia.’”

The centennial was celebrated with a parade and a few speeches—but no memorial. It wasn’t until 1982—Philadelphia’s 300th anniversary—that the idea was revived, in conjunction with the bicentennial of the Constitution in 1987. The first board for the National Constitution Center was formed that year, and the following year Congress passed the Constitution Heritage Act—which, however, did not decree what the Center should look like or contain. The board argued over whether it should be a sober and scholarly attraction or should take a more popular approach and bring the Constitution to life for all citizens. Board members came and went; fundraising was extremely challenging; progress was “glacial,” Bogle recalls.

That changed with the entrance of Rendell and Torsella. “The excitement, enthusiasm, and determination they brought to the boardroom was almost palpable,” he says. Within months, the National Park Service agreed to build the Center at the north end of Independence Mall, directly facing Independence Hall; Henry Cobb, whose portfolio includes the U.S. Courthouse in Boston and Commerce Square in Philadelphia, and Ralph Appelbaum, who designed the exhibits for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington as well as the Newseum in Arlington, Virginia, were selected to create an interactive museum to tell the story of We the People, and donors began stepping forward. By the time President Clinton presided over the groundbreaking on September 17, 2000, the state had released more than $22 million in capital funding, the single largest state commitment to any Philadelphia-based cultural institution.

Not that there weren’t bumps along the way. Torsella never doubted that the Constitution Center would get built (“The idea is so, as Jefferson would have said, ‘self-evident,’” he quips), but did sometimes wonder whether it would happen on his watch. By far, the worst of these moments came early on during a U.S. Senate field hearing when the National Park Service unexpectedly “ripped our plans,” Torsella recalls. “Ed and I both felt like we’d been hit in public by a two-by-four across the head, from behind.” (“I now know exactly what that feels like,” he notes, ruefully.)

With their federal subsidy in jeopardy, Torsella and Rendell regrouped that night with Pennsylvania’s U.S. senators, Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum, both of whom, he says “were rocks,” and emerged determined to see the project through. “Ed and I had a conversation during which we said, come hell or high water, there is going to come a day when we are going to walk through the doors of the National Constitution Center,” Torsella recalls. “I definitely discovered something about belief and persuasion. The crucial step is imagining and believing the possibility. Once you commit to that, other people commit, too.”

When all was said and done, $85 million in combined state and federal funds was allotted to the Center, with the city contributing $5 million and the Delaware Port Authority putting in $10.5 million. Substantial gifts came from the Annenberg Foundation ($10 million to establish the Annenberg Center for Education and Outreach, the Center’s educational arm) and a number of other individuals and foundations. “That we [went] into the homestretch with $175 million in hand is a remarkable tribute to Torsella and the outstanding staff he has built,” comments Bogle.

Laura Linton, executive vice president of the NCC, has worked closely with her boss through most of the planning and implementation phase. “Joe was the driving force and supplied the vision with regard to raising the funds, managing the budget, building the staff, and the design and content of the exhibits,” she says. “He is one of the smartest people I have ever known, but he also has a sense of the practical that many visionaries lack.”

Bogle calls working with Torsella “one of the most rewarding experiences” of his life. And the governor of Pennsylvania is equally effusive: “The best thing I ever did for the NCC was to put Joe Torsella in charge of it,” remarks Rendell. “Without Joe, the Center would not be open and would not be what I believe it is today —the best new museum in America and a stunning national landmark.”

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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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