Philadelphia’s great national symbol, the Liberty Bell, is busted. It doesn’t ring.
And that’s so Philly. Potholes that won’t stay filled, drivers who force bikes and pedestrians to the sidewalk, young men shooting at each other and nobody sees, painkillers that kill, landmark factories that sit vacant for years and are finally replaced by underbuilt apartments.
If we really wanted Philly to be a tough, fast, tech-based portal of the future, we’d fix the Liberty Bell, and more.
And why not? The city owns the Bell. (There are irritating scholars who claim it might not have actually rung that first July 4. And that Betsy Ross didn’t sew the Stars and Stripes, which didn’t fly for the first time in brave defeat at Cooch’s Bridge, south of town. But save it for your dissertation, pal.)
It may have rung that first July 4. Abolitionists fighting slavery called it the Liberty Bell and made it a national symbol.
But the Bell always sounded funny. We sent it back to its makers to try again. We had it melted and recast. We started the crack to ease its tension. When it spread, we drilled it out. Braced the metal. A healthy pattern: Innovate, fail, try again smarter. That made sense in a town where people made things -- clothes, machines, peace, laws, and a Nation.
But Philly stagnated. Congress moved to Washington, Jackson killed the Bank, the brokers ran off to Wall Street and the traders to Chicago. Penn’s city-on-a-hill settled for being a big smoky factory town, “corrupt and contented,” and city leaders gave up fixing the Bell. Finally in 1950, with our factories heading South, the city’s last Republican mayor arranged for the National Park Service to manage the city’s Bell-that-doesn’t-ring as a national relic.
Sixty-nine years later, Philadelphia, once New York’s rival, is only as populous as Phoenix or San Antonio. And at the Bell’s glass-walled home on Independence Mall, rangers let special guests with white gloves tap its dark patina on July Fourth and Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Enough. We have the technology for a Liberty Bell that rings. It should ring for elections, and toll when heroes die, and peal when the Eagles stomp the Patriots, Villanova tops the NCAA, and a Penn wonk gains a Nobel or launches an IPO.
What better symbol for Philly than a ringing Liberty Bell? Kate Smith’s stirring voice is now unwelcome. Frank Rizzo’s statue is a target of ingenious protest. Christopher Columbus is on trial again, for the same crimes the king of Spain had him jailed for, 500 years ago.
So Ring the Bell! I made that suggestion in this space eight years ago, when bankers were urging our then-mayor to sell the Gas Works to raise cash. Lease the Bell, I said. Fix it. License it. Let freedom ring.
“You could gas-weld it,” Doug Morris, whose B&B Foundry, Wissinoming, made full-sized Liberty Bell copies, said then. “Do some chemistry. You could ring that bell.”
B&B is gone, but my column earlier this year found its way to Auburn, N.Y. -- hometown of Underground Railroad leader and Union Army spy Harriet Tubman -- where at the Thirsty Pug bar, a job counselor named Don Miller read it aloud during a Mass Riot IPA-fueled discussion of why the Liberty Bell’s still broken.
Miller and pals David Fregly and Dean Aversa sent me their photo holding #FixTheBell signs. Plus a print of an Arby’s 1976 Bicentennial glass showing a heroic Liberty Bell crack-mending job by the cartoon hero Underdog.
I was inspired. I rang ArcelorMittal, the steel giant: What would it take to fix the Bell? “What an honor,” wrote back Fred Fletcher, senior principal scientist, based at the company’s former Lukens Steel in Coatesville.
The Bell, he noted, is too porous, and has too much tin, “rendering the bronze inherently brittle.” But “if the metal that constitutes the Liberty Bell were remelted, modern metallurgy would allow it to be diluted with new copper to bring the balance of copper and tin to the appropriate relative levels. And modern mold design and casting practices could provide a sound bell casting."
The Coatesville plant recently remelted scrap steel from the Cold War aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and rolled it for the keel of a new USS Enterprise. So there is precedent for “re-creating American icons” -- though Fletcher said he could also argue that “the final product would not be the Liberty Bell that Americans revere.”
I asked Evan Malone, a physicist, restaurant co-owner (Jet Wine Bar, Rex 1516), director of his family business (Liberty Media, parent of QVC), and founder-chief of the NextFab makerspaces in South, North, and West Philly. He sounded out his staff on this "technical challenge of great historic and cultural importance!”
“The repair could most likely be done with 3-D modeling and a method of 3-D printing known as Directed Energy Deposition,” which blows laser-guided-and-heated metal powder to build from an edge, suggested Walt Barger, NextFab printing and laser manager. Though Barger, too, warned: “The crack is a major part of its history and recognition.”
“My first instinct is to excavate the area immediate of the failure," and repair with gas-tungsten arc welding, suggested NextFab metal-processes manager Matt Watson, cautioning he’d only undertake such a job after expert, X-ray and metallurgical review, and the proper “bureaucratic/democratic process.”
Philly could take its Bell back, with Congress’ blessing, acknowledged Gina Gilliam, spokesperson for the National Park Service. And “it’s technically possible to close the gap” at the bottom of the crack. But it would ring flat again, and “the Bell would most likely fail, i.e., it would break into pieces” -- because crack spread can’t be stopped "except by recasting the Bell’s metal.”
So let’s recast it, I said. Gilliam protested: “The Liberty Bell’s crack is its most recognizable feature. The crack distinguishes visually the Liberty Bell from all other bells. Furthermore, the cracked Liberty Bell has come to symbolize humanity’s eternal yet imperfect quest for freedom.”
For the Park Service with its looking-backward mission, “ ‘fixing’ the Bell has no purpose," Gilliam concluded. It could even be illegal: “Because the historic Liberty Bell has greater symbolic value, recognition, and power than it would have as a working bell, attempting to repair it so that it could be rung would constitute impairment under the Organic Act and the General Authorities Act.This is because the ‘repair’ would negatively affect the fundamental resource and its values. Such an unacceptable impact is the antithesis of the NPS preservation mission.”
Yeah? Bring it. This is Philly. We challenge authority. As the Park Service knows!
How about a nice copy? There is, to be sure, a six-and-a-half-ton Centennial Bell, cast for the 100th anniversary of Independence and incorporating metal from Revolutionary and Civil War cannons (both sides), which rings the hours for the historic neighborhood. In 1976, a conciliatory Britain cast a replica Bicentennial Bell at the improved Whitechapel foundry where the original was cast so badly. It hung for a time at the Park Service’s local office, now demolished. It’s now in storage as Independence Historical Trust fund raises a new home for it.
There’s a Justice Bell, cast in 1915 by women’s suffragettes in Upstate New York. It toured the country, clapper chained and silent, urging Votes for Women. After the 1920 constitutional amendment guaranteed that right, the bell was rung near Independence Hall, then stashed at Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, because city fathers didn’t give it space. Liberty Bell copies sit on a number of State Capitol grounds, puzzling tourists.
A heavier “Founder’s Bell" still marks time, at One South Broad St., the old John Wanamaker men’s store (later PNB). It rang all hours, but as Center City has turned from business headquarters to apartments, “we have negotiated shorter times," 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, says David McFarland, of landlord PSP Management. “It has an incredible sound,"and is as familar as the El to shoppers on Kensington Ave. in the adjoining former Wanamaker family apartment, now the Red Tettemer O’Connell ad agency. “They are used to it. This is cool. We get bell-ringer visitors from places like Belgium.”
None of these has replaced the Liberty Bell in our hearts and minds. So I asked Dan DiLella, chairman, and Frank Giordano, executive director, of the federal Semiquincentennial Commission, if the congressional and corporate leaders on that presidentially appointed body will use the Bell in their plans for the nation’s 250th birthday in 2026 (strategic plan due this August, report to the President and Congress by year’s end. Companies including Citizens Bank, Comcast, IBX, Jefferson, Lincoln Financial, the Phillies, Wawa, have committed over $2 million as seed money for their American 250 Foundation to start planning.)
“We have a thought, to take the Liberty Bell on a tour throughout the United States,” mused Giordano. “Can we send it around the world?”
How about recasting the thing, showcasing digitally aided metalworking and Philly grit, and ring it a lot? I asked.
“You are talking heresy,” suggested DiLella, laughing. Why fix what’s “not broken”? meaning the Park Service’s able stewardship.
But it is broken -- like so much in Philly. I asked if modernizing, improving, and creatively ringing the Bell might push the city to reclaim its can-do character.
Over the phone, I couldn’t see his forehead wrinkle. “Everything is on the table,” the chairman finally concluded. “We are open to different ideas and fresh things.” (Updated and material added 7/1/2019)