Friday, June 13, 1997

Constitution Center gains steam

Part of the excitement of the Rendell administration was his frenzy to create new cultural landmarks for Philadelphia. Here's the creation of one of them.


It will be a temple to America's civic religion and a multimedia show, a theme-park ride through U.S. history and a forum for scholars and debates, a tourist lure and an oasis for reviving citizenship's soul.

The National Constitution Center, for nearly a decade a fuzzy concept with a toehold on Independence Mall, is coming into sharper view.

As Mayor Rendell outlined it yesterday, the center will be a $123 million facility on the north side of Arch Street, facing Independence Hall two blocks south. Target groundbreaking: Sept. 17, Constitution Day, 2000.

Flanked by University of Pennsylvania President Judith Rodin at a news conference at City Hall, Rendell announced that Penn will serve as the center's academic arm, producing conferences, radio programs, a Web site and scholarly works to help bring constitutional issues to life.

Rendell also unveiled an 8-minute video, narrated by actor James Earl Jones, former President Bush and newscaster Andrea Mitchell, featuring artists' conceptions of the center, showing how state-of-the-art museum technologies can be harnessed to illustrate how the Constitution affects everyday Americans and has inspired millions of others around the world.

Rendell said center officials intend to run the slickly produced video for government, business and foundation leaders - President Clinton among them - as they launch a national fund-raising drive.

"We have no illusions that this will be easy," Rendell said, evoking a center that will be as much national asset as local tourist attraction. "But this will be a museum of immense importance."
Rendell, chairman of the project since December, said he has overcome his own skepticism about the project. When he took over, he said, he demanded a hard look into whether the would-be high-tech celebration of the Constitution was either practical or necessary.

Now the consultants' studies are in, he said, and it's clear that the center is doable. More than that - in a nation in which six out of 10 Americans are said to be unable to identify the Bill of Rights - it's a must.

"There's an extraordinarily great need," Rendell said, for a facility that will "open entirely new vistas of understanding and knowledge about the Constitution."

The center, as described yesterday, would be cheaper and smaller than previous conceptions, which called for a $170 million, 200,000-square-foot facility. Estimates of attendance have also been scaled back, from 3 million visitors a year to 1 million.

As now envisioned, the center will be a 132,000-square-foot building with 74,000 square feet of exhibition space - and We The People emblazoned on the front in the familiar script of the Constitution's preamble. Officials said the facility could be expanded if attendance exceeds expectations.

While earlier proposals situated the center south of Arch Street, new plans move it a block north, affording the opportunity for more space, Rendell said. The mayor said the National Park Service has agreed to the change.

As the video and officials describe it, visitors will receive cards identifying them as delegates to the original Constitutional Convention. They'll begin their tours by strapping into automated seats that move through a series of connected theaters. They'll ride backwards and stop in what seems Revolutionary-era Philadelphia, amid sights and sounds evoking the debates and conflicts that forged the nation.

After that introduction, visitors will get back on their feet. They'll explore a variety of zones filled with interactive exhibits and simulations devoted to two broad meanings of the Constitution: the framework for the nation's government and the protector of individual rights.

"As we learn about the Civil War, we notice a crack in the floor widening - until it forces us, as the war forced Americans, to choose which story to follow, the Blue or the Gray," intones the video's narration.

"We walk through the aisle of a crowded bus in the 1950s, seeing Montgomery, Ala., through the windows. And we hear the soft voice of Rosa Parks start the Civil Rights Movement with a single word: no."

Elsewhere, visitors will watch videotaped debates on current Constitutional issues - the balanced-budget amendment, for instance - and will vote yes or no. Results will be tallied and put on display.

As the tour concludes, visitors will enter a large semicircular room, "Signers' Hall," dominated by a large multimedia screen depicting MTV-quick images from the past and the present to remind people that "our constitutional freedoms are the sum of millions of individual actions."

The hall will feature an original copy of the Constitution. At a large stone desk reminiscent of those in Independence Hall, visitors will be able to "sign" the document with a laser pen. When they leave, they'll be handed a parchment replica with their signature streaked among the actual signers'.

"The Constitution Center will be unlike any other museum experience," said Joseph Torsella, NCC president. "Visitors will leave with a profound sense of the integral role the Constitution played in their history and the role it continues to play in their everyday lives."

The National Constitution Center dates to 1988, when Congress authorized the nonprofit organization, charging it to make the Constitution more relevant to Americans.

A group led by local businessman A.E. Wolf spent three years making plans and trying to raise money, but encountered rough sledding. When Rendell took over, he and his appointee, Torsella, discovered that the organization was headed for a $460,000 deficit by the end of the current fiscal year, June 30.

By cutting expenses and calling on volunteers, Torsella has cut the projected shortfall to about $150,000, "not that unusual for a nonprofit," Torsella said.

Rendell and Torsella also upped the pace of planning, tapping the expertise of a board of distinguished historians who have been brainstorming about the center for about a year. The group includes Gordon Wood, a Constitution expert from Brown University; James McPherson, Civil War expert from Princeton University; Joyce Appleby, president of the American Historical Association; Michael Les Benedict, Constitutional legal Scholar from Ohio State; Jesse Choper, law professor from University of California, Berkeley; and Richard Beeman, American Revolution scholar from Penn.

As part of Penn's connection to the center, Beeman will serve as its first senior visiting fellow. He is to help enlist scholars, legal-affairs experts, public officials, museum professionals and others to help design educational programs, exhibits, town meetings and symposia.

Gary Hack, dean of Penn's Graduate School of Fine Arts, will act as senior consultant on design and site-planning issues.

The two "are simply the best and the brightest in their fields," Rendell said. "They exemplify the combination of academic distinction and practical experience that characterizes the type of individual we intend to attract to the center."

Rendell said that the national scope of the effort, as well as a three-year time frame, should spell success for raising the needed $123 million. He said he saw no conflict with his efforts to raise millions for another major project, the Regional Performing Arts Center envisioned for South Broad Street. Only Philadelphia-area donors are being tapped for that project, which includes a new home for the Philadelphia Orchestra.

One early activity for Penn will be development of a "virtual museum" for the center, a Web site that will enable users around the world to tap into the center's attractions and resources.
Constitution Day, or Citizenship Day, is a little-noted holiday that marks the date - Sept. 17, 1787 - when the Constitution was approved by the 12 states represented at the Constitutional Convention (Rhode Island wasn't present); 39 delegates signed it, and the convention adjourned.

Torsella said the spirit of the center is best captured in an old story about Benjamin Franklin, who, upon emerging from the convention, was asked whether Americans were being given a republic or a monarchy.

"A republic, madam," Franklin famously replied, "if you can keep it."

"This center," Torsella said, "is going to teach Americans how to keep the republic the founders established."

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