How Did the Constitution Center Become a Monument to Mediocrity?

It was supposed to be our high-tech temple to the greatest government document ever created. Here, we explore what went wrong

In the month I spent reporting this story, House Republicans threatened to plunge the country into default unless President Obama acceded to their demands for spending cuts; the President continued to bomb Libya without congressional authorization; in a violation of international law, Texas executed a man; and New York became the largest state to allow gay marriage. Go back a few years: enhanced interrogation, warrantless wiretapping, Terri Schiavo, the ongoing post-9/11 security-vs.-liberties debate, Bush v. Gore, the Clinton impeachment.

These controversies were—and are—all quintessentially American. They go to the heart of what the Constitution means in the early 21st century, as technology and social norms evolve at lightning speed. And yet you’ll find only passing, perfunctory mentions of issues like these inside the Constitution Center, if any.

As Ted Wolf, the Constitution Center’s first chairman, recently told me, the center is “getting, not too conservative politically, but conservative risk-wise”—and in doing so, rendering itself irrelevant. “There should be more involvement in some of the more dangerous, controversial matters. The Constitution Center should become involved and get its hands dirty a little bit, and take some risks,” he says.

Perhaps sucks is too harsh an adjective. Let’s try another: It’s fine. Not terrible. Not unforgettable. Fine.

Doesn’t one of the most revolutionary documents in human history, one that introduced the concepts of freedom of speech and religious pluralism and separation of power, one that, at 224 years old this month, is still going strong despite the radical changes that have upended the world since, deserve better than fine? Moreover, doesn’t the city where so much of the nation’s early history happened deserve better, too?

AN EXISTENTIAL DILEMMA has existed from the center’s inception, long before the building’s groundbreaking in September 2000, even before the first architectural renderings were put to paper. In the mid-1990s, this dilemma prompted many of the center’s board members to quit: They wanted it to be a place where the world’s foremost scholarship on the Constitution would take place. The other faction imagined the center more along the lines of what it is now—a feel-good, tourist-friendly jaunt “where you enter as a visitor and leave as a citizen,” says Torsella, now an ambassador to the United Nations.

The man who first pitched the place, a lawyer and activist named Stuart F. Feldman, had proposed a museum and “study center.” Feldman, who died last year, argued back in 1984 that it was a travesty that you could walk through Philly’s historic district and “leave with no idea why the Constitution is the world’s greatest and most important political document.”

For a dozen years, even after Congress unanimously authorized the museum’s construction in 1988 (but would only fund part of it), the center plodded along, raising just enough money to hire Ralph Appelbaum, the mind behind the U.S Holocaust Memorial Museum (and, later, the Newseum). His sketches seduced Governor Ed Rendell, who in ’97 replaced Wolf as the center’s chairman, tapped Torsella, a Rhodes scholar and former deputy mayor, to run the place, and set about securing federal funds through his friend, Senator Arlen Specter.

Rendell’s enthusiasm stemmed from the fact that when he became mayor, Independence Mall was a mess. The few tourists who ventured into Old City got a rote tour of Independence Hall and a rote tour of the Liberty Bell—then housed in a pavilion “that looked like a McDonald’s,” Rendell says—and left: “It had no pizzazz, no oomph, no reason for tourists to come, and if they did come, they went home and said, ‘Ugh.’”

There were internecine battles over where the center would go and what it would look like. In the end, it was stationed north of Arch, atop what was once a park populated by homeless people. Now people go to the Visitor’s Center and make a decision-—do they go north to pay $12 at the Constitution Center, or south to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall for free?

The Constitution Center today is Joe Torsella’s baby. It was Torsella who crystallized its mission—as he puts it, to -“create citizens, not publish books”—and conceptualized The Story of We the People, its permanent exhibit.

Torsella left in 2003, soon after the center opened, to run (unsuccessfully) for Congress. The center’s pick for a replacement was unconventional. Richard Stengel was a preeminent political writer and editor for Time, sure, but he’d never done anything like run a museum-. Still, like Torsella, Stengel was whip-smart—another Rhodes scholar. He also had a background in new media, having managed Time magazine’s website. And, perhaps most important, as a national political journalist for almost a quarter century, he had an unparalleled Rolodex. So in 2004, the center brought him on board.