Independence National Park Is an Embarrassing Mess. Why Doesn’t Anyone Care?

The birthplace of the United States is turning into a shambles, and no one — the feds, the city, Philadelphians themselves — seems inclined to do anything about it.

Independence Hall

Independence Hall on a spring day. Photograph by Matt Zugale

“Get in the pen.”

That’s the first strange thing you’ll hear when you take a tour of Independence Hall, the birthplace of American liberty. I’ve just handed my ticket to a National Park Service ranger, who promptly ordered me into the pen. I obliged.

The pen is a fenced-off gathering area in the green square behind Independence Hall, which butts up against Walnut, 6th and 5th streets. I look up at the blue sky, thankful there’s no rain in the forecast. A pack of tourists streams in, and we stand shoulder-to-shoulder. Here we are, on this warm spring afternoon, preparing to worship at the altar of American freedom, and we’re enclosed like livestock.

The second strange thing that happens when you take a tour of Independence Hall comes immediately after you leave the pen. Our group is led to a musty side room with yellow-tinted wood paneling that’s lined with rows of white plastic chairs. Everyone sits down. At other significant sites or in other museums, this would be the part of the tour where you enter a dark theater to watch a well-produced, drama-packed video that sets the scene for the piece of history you’re about to experience in real time. At Independence Hall, there is no video. Instead, a park ranger or a volunteer — in green Park Service garb — begins a 10-minute spiel about the bravery of the American patriots who dared to throw off the yoke of the British Empire. It’s as if I’ve been transported back in time — to my fifth-grade civics class.

Eventually, class is dismissed, and we finally enter the main attraction. The Assembly Room is dutifully reconstructed, with rows of tables draped in green cloth, quills and manuscripts and wooden Windsor chairs. It looks just as it might have on those days in the 1700s when Washington and Adams and Jefferson and Franklin were imprinting their politics onto the still-wet clay that was America. Most of those in my group are wide-eyed schoolchildren from New York City. As the tour ends, our guide tells them with booming sincerity, “When you guys get back home, tell your friends and family you stood in the room where the United States began.”

Independence Hall

The Assembly Room in Independence Hall. Photograph by Matt Zugale

Visiting Independence Hall can be a profoundly optimistic experience — the closest thing we have to a national church, if the religion in question is American exceptionalism. But though the building has retained its humble majesty, the buildup to the climax is so poor, and the production values are so low by 2019 standards, that it’s hard not to feel deflated. My personal moment of heresy came as I walked through a hallway past a discarded white plastic bucket labeled ICE MELT. It was April.

The state of affairs worsens. I head for a room on the west side of the building that holds the “Great Essentials” exhibit, named for the priceless documents — 18th-century copies of the Declaration and the Constitution — on display. I enter through a door from which multiple layers of paint have been scratched off like snakeskin, leaving the naked wood foundation exposed. For a second, I think I took a wrong turn — am I walking into a storage room by accident? But a plain white EXHIBIT ENTRANCE sign assures me otherwise.

Visiting Independence Hall can be a profoundly optimistic experience, but the buildup to the climax is so poor, and the production values are so low by 2019 standards, that it’s hard not to feel deflated.

The Great Essentials exhibit does in fact retain certain storage-room characteristics: The carpet is unvacuumed; the lights are too dim for me to clearly see anything. Next door at Congress Hall, where the United States government once convened, start times for tours are presented via a paper clock that a park ranger dutifully adjusts every 20 minutes. If you’re a foreign visitor and don’t speak English, don’t bother waiting. There are no foreign-language audio guides.

This is the tourist’s experience at Independence National Historical Park, the fourth-most-visited national park in the country. It welcomed 4.6 million pilgrims last year alone — ahead of Yellowstone, Yosemite or Zion (and the Statue of Liberty, too). Independence Hall is one of only 11 UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites in the United States. It’s Philadelphia’s (democratic) Versailles. Yet the curation is more on par with a half-abandoned cathedral in a random village in the South of France.

How did we get here? There’s plenty of blame to go around. The U.S. government’s National Park Service is in charge of all of the park’s land — a set of green spaces and sites running from 2nd to 7th Street between Walnut and Arch — yet hasn’t provided a budget increase in more than a decade. The result is that at “America’s Most Historic Square Mile,” critical maintenance is left unperformed, and on the majority of days, as many as 10 of the park’s 35 sites are closed to the public because there isn’t enough staffing. The City of Philadelphia, which technically owns Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell (more on that later) and profits immensely from the park’s tourism, is guilty of neglect, too. Over the past decade, it’s given a total of $76,000 to the park — less than the annual salary of a single police officer.

But perhaps most damning of all is the widespread apathy toward the park, which seems to be shared by just about every Philadelphian. Is there something missing in our genetic code? People in Boston and Washington, D.C., have a certain historical pride baked into their DNA — even though neither of those cities has the place where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the building where the Constitution was debated, or Alexander Hamilton’s central bank. We care more about sports, food and Rocky than our historical significance. Perhaps a Freudian psychologist would trace this apathy back to when our young city lost its status as America’s capital in 1800.

In 2026, the United States will turn 250. It seems self-evident that the entire country’s attention will shift to Philadelphia, as it has for every significant anniversary in American history: the Centennial in 1876, the Bicentennial in 1976. Will our city’s crown jewel be polished in time?

When you take a tour of Independence Hall, you’re meant to absorb the following bit of American gospel above all else: that the United States is a grand experiment, its brand of federalism a shining beacon for all other governments to follow. What they don’t tell you on the tour: The federalism celebrated in American lore is also the precise reason why Independence Park is foundering.

One Wednesday afternoon in March, I take a walking tour of the would-be greatest hits in Independence Park with two of the people who know it best: park superintendent Cynthia MacLeod and Joyce Walker, deputy director of the Independence Historical Trust, the nonprofit that fund-raises on behalf of the park.

Walker is a triple espresso shot of a person, with brown hair, sharp cheekbones, and a tendency to speak until she runs out of breath. “People call me Leslie Knope,” says the 54-year-old. MacLeod is her foil, the consummate bureaucrat: calmer, measured, and occasionally the one to let Walker know that her latest big idea isn’t feasible. MacLeod’s usually in the standard-issue Park Service uniform of gray button-up shirt and flat-brimmed tan Stetson, but today she’s dressed like any other office manager.

We arrive at the First Bank of the United States, a three-story marble edifice at 3rd and Chestnut that resembles the Athenian Parthenon. It’s the oldest structure built for the U.S. federal government still standing today. I would have no way of knowing this if I weren’t being lectured by the park superintendent, because the minuscule sidewalk sign denoting the bank mentions no such thing.

Independence Hall

Inside the First Bank of the United States, on 3rd Street. Photograph by Matt Zugale

Poor branding is the least of the bank’s problems. Buildings age just as humans do, and the First Bank, nearing its 225th birthday, is in need of medical care. It’s been closed to the public for more than three decades, and though it retains much of its exterior majesty — the hand-carved frieze above the entryway depicts an American eagle, believed to be the first use of the bird as a symbol on a government building (again, not mentioned on the sign) — the bank’s a mess on the inside. The room smells like a musky wine cellar. There’s worn-down red carpeting. Chipped paint has left Rorschach splotches across the walls. It’s mostly being used as a gigantic storage closet for artifacts unearthed during construction of the National Constitution Center a few blocks away. “We’re kind of hoarders,” says MacLeod. “We can’t quite throw things out.”

MacLeod, who’s worked at the Park Service for 38 years, begins casually rattling off other ailments afflicting the bank’s internal organs: “It needs HVAC, it needs a new electrical system, it needs a second means of egress from the upper floors. It needs to have the painting redone — there’s probably some lead paint here.” And then she drops the real bombshell: The First Bank of the United States doesn’t have a fire suppression system.

The First Bank is possibly the most egregious example of Park Service failure, but it’s hardly the only property in need of a face-lift. MacLeod, Walker and I head over to the Declaration House at 7th and Market. It’s a reconstruction of the site where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, built for the 1976 Bicentennial.

As at First Bank, the exterior retains its stately character, a mix of red brick and beige shutters. Inside, I notice the fist-size chunks of paint that have fallen off the walls. MacLeod points out the off-putting popcorn ceiling, while Walker looks down: “This carpeting reminds me of a motel.” “A seedy motel!” says MacLeod. Much like the Great Essentials exhibit, the Declaration House reads more vacant rowhome than federally funded museum.

In fact, it is vacant. The HVAC system recently tanked, but, more critically, there isn’t enough staff to man the museum, air-conditioning or not. It’s hardly a unique problem in the park. Among other properties that are closed or have limited hours due to manpower shortages: the Second Bank portrait gallery, the Free Quaker Meeting House, the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, the Bishop White House. Many of the buildings have little signage, so you can’t tell whether a site is open or closed until you pull on the door to see if it budges. There’s an app you can download — one bit of tech-forwardness on the part of the park — that tells you which sites are open on a given day, but the interface is a relic of the late 2000s.

Independence Hall

Trust deputy director Joyce Walker (left) and park superintendent Cynthia MacLeod. Photograph by Matt Zugale

At the Declaration House, it becomes apparent that MacLeod and Walker planned this tour to showcase the absolute worst of the park, presumably to gin up an outraged call to arms. MacLeod is willing to take the break-from-protocol risk because she knows the state of the park’s upkeep isn’t really her fault; she has little recourse when it comes to the federal government not providing sufficient funds.

As we’re about to leave, Walker goes to turn off the lights, which can only be done by thrusting the circuit breakers to the side. There are no functioning light switches. “We’ll be cited by some code official if you publish all that,” says MacLeod. “Although it’s federal, so they can’t, really. But still. It’s embarrassing.”

Federal funds are hard to come by largely because of the National Park Service’s byzantine regulatory structure. While Independence Park gets a $24 million annual operating budget — which hasn’t increased in 12 years — 80 percent of that is allocated to fixed costs like staffing and utilities, with maintenance upkeep getting short shrift. For intensive rehab projects like First Bank or the Declaration House’s HVAC system, Independence Park has to compete with 419 other units — ranging from enormous parks like Joshua Tree to monuments like the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in D.C. — under the NPS umbrella, creating a battle royale for funding. The end result is that parks with the most urgent needs get money before those with still-significant but non-life-threatening challenges. “It’s triage,” says MacLeod.

According to the most recent tally, Independence Park has a total of $51 million worth of “deferred maintenance,” meaning projects that should have been completed but for which funding hasn’t been provided. It’s hardly a crisis unique to Philadelphia — the total for deferred maintenance at all National Park Service properties is $11.9 billion. That figure has finally gotten the attention of Congress, which is currently considering a bill — a rare bipartisan piece of legislation with 37 different co-sponsors in the Senate and 228 in the House — that would provide up to $6.5 billion to alleviate some of that backlog.

Still, the $11.9 billion is a bit misleading, because many hundreds of millions of dollars are eaten up by projects like fixing shoddy roads in sprawling western parks like Yellowstone. That’s important, no doubt — you can’t get anywhere without roads — but seems less urgent than the situation at Independence Park, where more than 80 percent of deferred maintenance is for buildings, the single most important asset the park has.

Further complicating matters: Because Independence Park is thought of as a sort of national shrine meant to be available to everyone, there are no entrance fees. The open concept is great for egalitarianism but results in a significant blunting of the bottom line. Yellowstone, for example, has around four million annual visitors — half a million less than Independence Park — and earns a total of $9 million via entrance fees. (Twenty percent of fees collected by parks are set aside for non-fee parks, but only through a priority system.)

That’s where the Friends of Independence National Historical Park — the precursor to the present-day Trust — came in. Formed in the 1970s during the lead-up to the Bicentennial, the group was revolutionary in concept: It would be a separate but closely linked fund-raising vehicle to help the cash-strapped park work around institutionalized challenges — like the fact that park employees are forbidden to publicly solicit donations. The Friends would serve as a semi-public advocate. The model was so successful that it’s been replicated at parks across the country.

For most of its history, the Friends group targeted smaller projects, like finding volunteer guides to help staff buildings or purchasing antiques. Joyce Walker, whose left wrist bears a bracelet with the GPS coordinates of Independence Hall, has completely changed the calculation during her two years as deputy director of the Trust. Her menu of projects includes conserving the Signer statue at 5th and Chestnut ($8,625); preserving the historic library of Bishop White ($43,000); creating a pavilion at 3rd and Walnut where the Bicentennial Bell — gifted to the U.S. by Queen Elizabeth in 1976 — can be displayed ($1 million); and, for the main course, restoring the First Bank ($30 million). It’s an ambitious list that she wants to be complete by the 2026 semiquincentennial: “That’s non-negotiable.”

When an institution — a museum, a hospital, a name-the-cause 5K, a SEPTA station — needs money for a project, it follows a road map. Walker has spent most of her fund-raising efforts on the behemoth First Bank project, landing $1 million gifts from Gerry Lenfest’s estate and Wharton prof Jeremy Siegel, an $8 million grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and $5.4 million in federal funds that MacLeod snagged. That adds up to about $15 million total — half of what’s needed.

Walker’s working all the angles she can. Earlier this year, she hired an outside fund-raising consultant to search for donors at a national level, and she’s been giving tours to Philadelphia’s elite, hoping to form connections that might turn into donations. Last year, Walker managed to raise only $1.5 million in private donations.

The corporate world could provide another revenue stream, but Walker’s efforts hit a speed bump there, too. Marketing isn’t permitted in national parks. This has been a longstanding policy, to shield parks like Independence from real-life versions of the dad-joke hoax Taco Bell pulled in the 1990s, when it claimed it had bought the Liberty Bell and renamed it the “Taco Liberty Bell.” There have been whispers of change in recent years — in 2016, National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis tried to loosen fund-raising guidelines to allow companies to display corporate logos on donor plaques and let some park superintendents play a more direct role in fund-raising. Park advocates forced him to stand down. Still, merits aside, the proposed changes are a sign someone recognizes that the current situation isn’t sustainable.

The upshot is that a huge amount of prospective corporate funding is off-limits — because companies can be recognized by, at most, a small plaque. “Corporations have many more marketing dollars than they have philanthropic dollars,” Walker says. Take Wawa as an example. The company has been touting its new flagship store in part because of its grand location: across the street from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. And while Wawa donated $45,000 this year for new bikes for the park’s rangers, there have been no large-scale or ongoing donations. It makes more business sense for Wawa to spend big bucks on something like the Wawa Welcome America festival and plaster its logo on as many surfaces as humanly possible.

Walker has also set her sights on corporations that make use of Independence Park iconography — like the 76ers and Phillies with their Liberty Bell logos — free of charge. You can’t blame her for wanting a cut. “I’m like, ‘No, no, no! You guys gotta give us money,’” she says. “Oh man, if I could figure out how to do that.” Walker laughs. She knows she can’t, saying of the bell, “It’s America’s icon.” But that doesn’t make the lack of corporate support any less frustrating. A block away, the Museum of the American Revolution raised $165 million over an eight-year span, including a donation in 2017 from Comcast and Brian Roberts’s foundation for $2.5 million.

Walker’s also been enlisting City Councilmember Mark Squilla, whose 1st District includes the park, to suggest potential funding avenues. She wants a consistent flow of dollars from the city, like the money Visit Philadelphia gets via a chunk of the hotel tax. “Given how much benefit we offer,” Walker says, “I think there’s a way they could put us in their budget.”

The Mayor’s Office could always pitch in — and during the Street and Nutter administrations of the 2000s, it did, helping fund a $12 million reconstruction of George Washington’s house along Independence Mall. But Kenney has taken a different tack: Blame the feds for their incompetence. “Asking the poorest big city in the country to cover federal liabilities seems unfair and unrealistic,” a spokesman for Mayor Kenney writes in a statement. “Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell aren’t just Philadelphia’s responsibility.”

The Mayor’s Office could always pitch in, but Kenney’s administration has taken a different tack: Blame the feds for their incompetence.

Squilla disagrees, arguing that all relevant governments — federal, city and state — should lift the load together, “instead of pointing fingers at each other.” But Squilla hasn’t yet taken any concrete steps to enlist city support for the park, either. So the various governments with a stake can plausibly deny responsibility, passing the buck in a merry-go-round of abdication.

Walker is left to pull from the well of private goodwill, hoping there are enough deep-pocketed donors out there who share her zeal for history and her dismay at the current state of the park. But the philanthropists she’s courting will also need a taste for dark comedy. What she’s ultimately doing is asking them to fund projects to memorialize an American government whose failings are the very reason she’s in the position of asking for money.

Like the founders of this country who promoted freedom while owning slaves, Independence Park was born of contradictions. Much of what you see today — like the verdant stretch of grass constituting Independence Mall — was created through destruction. The Mall was densely packed with homes and businesses until park planners leveled them, eliminating one history while propping up another.

The animating idea of the new park, officially founded in 1948 under the Truman administration, was that it would include buildings from the Revolutionary War period. Anything younger — like the Provident Life & Trust Building, designed by Frank Furness and eventually demolished — was expendable. This vision of the park was always something of a fictitious conceit. As historian Constance Greiff wrote in a history of Independence Park published in 1987, “The National Park Service can never again destroy so much of the historic fabric of a city in order to create an artificial vision of the past.”

The federal government was to administer the park, and it purchased tracts of land for its grand experiment. When it came to the central attractions — Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, which up until 1976 was housed in the Independence Hall bell tower — the Park Service hatched a deal with the city: Philly would retain ownership of the building and bell, and the federal government would maintain them. (The city had come to own Independence Hall — which previously served as the state capitol building — because a century and a half earlier, Pennsylvania lawmakers had proposed selling it to developers, no longer needing it when the capital finally landed in Harrisburg in 1812. The city stepped in to purchase the building for $70,000.)

In some respects, Independence Park hasn’t really faced a new challenge in decades — its problems are all old ones that recur with the reliability of seasons. Go back to 1976, on the eve of the Bicentennial. The park was short of funds then, too, until the Friends turned up with a monetary assist. But once the convenient anniversary passed and the spigot of pressure was turned off, attention waned.

Critics have been panning the park over its lack of upkeep for decades. A New York Times article from 1992 noted that “buff-colored paint on the downspout of Congress Hall is peeling,” and, more ominously, that Independence Hall was in such bad shape that “experts say a fire would level the landmark in less than 30 minutes.” Indeed, Independence Park had been listed in both that year and 1991 as one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in all of America. (Mercifully, the fire suppression was updated a few years later by the federal government.) Two years ago, the Inquirer sang a similar refrain, this time writing of the park’s “weedy patchworks” of grass, general shabbiness, and “message of unwelcome.”

Government shutdowns have been a recurring motif in the park’s story. In 1995, as park rangers were furloughed due to a federal budget impasse, then-mayor Ed Rendell threatened something radical: moving the city-owned Liberty Bell — the park’s most-visited attraction at the time — out of the federal display pavilion and into city control, arguing in a letter to government officials that the landmarks had “unnecessarily become hostages to the Park Service’s budget.”

Twenty-four years later, the park found itself in a similar situation during the longest federal government shutdown in history. In January of 2018, 160,000 people visited the park. In January 2019 (shutdown month), the park saw 60,000 visitors. The impact was acute: Old City District executive director Job Itzkowitz says some businesses in the area reported revenue decreases of 40 percent. According to the Park Service’s own tabulations, when Independence Park is open, it’s an economic boon for the city, generating some $270 million in revenue in 2018 for the surrounding area, including $86 million for hotels and $62 million for restaurants.

There was one difference with this most recent shutdown: Where was the civic outrage? Where was our mayor, railing against the federal government for shutting off this economic engine? The city’s priorities have shifted away from its history, which is less a point of pride and more like a vestigial structure — something part of us, yes, but now foreign and obsolete.

Everyone has a theory about why Philly is so lukewarm toward its own past. “Maybe the abundance of our riches has diluted our appreciation for what we have,” speculates WHYY CEO Bill Marrazzo, who’s also the board chair of the Independence Historical Trust. Or as Preservation Alliance executive director Paul Steinke opines, “Philadelphians probably assume that Independence Park is in good hands with the federal government and that we don’t have to worry about it.” Or maybe it comes down to our limited chronology, as former Visit Philly head Meryl Levitz says: “We’re a baby country.”

Hardly anyone disputes that Philadelphians don’t seem to care — or even know — that Independence Park is in dire financial straits. Little public angst produces little government urgency; the same goes for attracting funds. “The philanthropic wells are not as deep as they were before,” says Levitz. “Everybody needs money.” And what fund-raising is really about is convincing people that your crisis is more acute than everyone else’s. Public strife goes a long way toward crystallizing that argument.

Walker admits she hasn’t done a good enough job soliciting donations from rich Philadelphians like Brian Roberts and Ronald Perelman. (Worth noting: The Independence Trust has some board members who chip in on a volunteer basis, but Walker’s still a full-time money-raising staff of one.) “I just haven’t had a chance to reach out and drag everybody” — she catches herself — “invite everybody to the park.”

If the 1976 Bicentennial and 1876 Centennial are any indication, the 2026 semiquincentennial celebration could be Walker’s best chance to tap into a coursing stream of civic patriotism. Groups have already cropped up to promote the anniversary. In 2016, Congress unanimously passed legislation establishing the United States Semiquincentennial Commission, tasked with planning a nationwide birthday party. Given the cast of characters named to the national commission, it appears Philly will (unsurprisingly) feature prominently in the festivities. Among those involved: Philly POPS CEO Frank Giordano as interim executive director, plus senators Pat Toomey and Bob Casey, Congressman Dwight Evans, civic lion David L. Cohen, and Penn president Amy Gutmann.

Pennsylvania has its own offshoot, called the Pennsylvania Semiquincentennial Commission, established by Governor Tom Wolf and the state legislature last June. Philly grocery-store magnate Pat Burns heads up that commission, but it hadn’t held its first meeting as of mid-April, nearly a year after its creation.

Though 2026 is still seven years away, the lack of urgency isn’t exactly a reassuring sign. The state commission has the imprimatur of government support but no budget allocation yet. “A lot of this will be done through generous donations from businesses and people,” says Burns. “The government can’t always do everything. You can’t always put tax dollars to everything.”

Relying on corporations for funding may prove successful for the commission, but for the Independence Trust and the National Park Service, any sponsorship with naming rights attached will be a non-starter. It’s not hard to envision a scenario in which the various semiquincentennial groups put on lavish events but end up doing little to invest in the park’s long-term security.

Those critical, decidedly unsexy repair efforts may well remain the domain of the Independence Trust in the end. But despite the laundry list of improvements the park needs, Walker remains optimistic. “Philadelphia has, literally, the best stuff in the nation,” she says. “I just can’t imagine that everyone shouldn’t be sending all their dollars to fix it and make it even better.”

It could happen. The world got a glimpse of widespread civic-mindedness in April, when the Nôtre Dame cathedral burned in Paris. Residents streamed into the streets as flames burst from the spire. One onlooker told the New York Times in a moment of despair, when the building’s fate still hung in the balance, “Paris is beheaded.”

Parisians arguably have every excuse to be more apathetic about their history than Philadelphians are, considering France’s wealth of historical sites. Yet $1 billion was raised for Nôtre Dame in the two days after it burned. To the French, the cathedral wasn’t merely another famous building — it was the soul of Paris, the lifeblood of the city. Would people be similarly devastated if Independence Hall caught fire?

We tend to think of historical buildings as just that: old, fixed in time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Their pasts may already have been written, but they straddle past and present in equal measure. Each dollar Walker solicits for the First Bank or Independence Hall becomes part of those buildings’ legacy; each tour MacLeod leads widens their story. And we seem to have forgotten that ours is an active inheritance — it must be maintained. There are few consistent lessons across history, but this one is most apt: Just because something is here today doesn’t mean it will be here tomorrow.

Published as “Is This Place … History?” in the July 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.