The Betsy Ross House, the Liberty Bell — and a giant tribute to Benjamin Franklin made from thousands of pennies? Decades ago, all would have been on a tourist’s itinerary.
At 14 feet tall — maybe 16 feet, depending on the source — “Penny Franklin” was once found in the highly trafficked area at Fourth and Arch Streets. It was hard to miss. A 1982 Daily News story reported that “some say more pictures are snapped of Penny than any other city sight, except for the Liberty Bell.”
But after 25 years, it met its demise — a victim of the very people who adored it.
Time, it appears, has not filled the void left by the absence of the sculpture, unveiled in 1971 and made by Philadelphia artist Reginald E. Beauchamp out of fiberglass and 80,000 pennies collected by local children for the 100th anniversary of the Fire Department’s Engine 8. A fondness lingered for at least one reader, who checked in on its whereabouts through Curious Philly, The Inquirer’s question-and-answer forum.
The “ceaseless pounding of thousands of sneaker-clad children,” the removal of some of the pennies, and rain wore the sculpture down, causing the bust to slouch “as if sleepy with age,” according to archives.
“Whoever did it had to use a hammer and chisel to get them off,” Beauchamp told the Daily News. He noted that each penny took about 10 minutes to remove. “There was a whole patch of pennies, about 178 of them, taken from the chest.”
Penny Franklin, also nicknamed “Penny Benny," was moved to a South Philadelphia warehouse in 1996 as officials weighed whether to repair or replace the bust. A spokesperson for then-Mayor Ed Rendell said repairs would have cost “in the tens of thousands of dollars.” There was even talk of it finding a permanent home for it at the Franklin Institute.
Waste not, want not. The sculpture remains in Old City, just not in its original form. Margot Berg, the city’s public art director, said firefighters removed the pennies from the original sculpture and cast them into the molten bronze poured for “Keys to Community," a nine-foot bronze bust of Franklin at Girard Fountain Park on Arch Street near Fourth Street. The sculpture was installed in 2007 and incorporates more than 1,000 keys collected from schoolchildren.
Perhaps its foundation was rotten anyway — the old adage “a penny saved is a penny earned” was never Franklin’s to claim, according to the Franklin Institute.