Philadelphia does history right So far, so good for the National Constitution Center.

Posted: June 13, 2006

Less than three years old, the National Constitution Center has established itself as one of the city's cultural celebs, attracting a million visitors a year, putting pizzazz into civic and educational offerings, hosting blockbuster exhibitions - of history, no less - and attracting the nation's intellectual cognoscenti and media elite like bears to honey.

Yesterday, Richard Stengel, president of the center for more than two years, passed the reins back to his predecessor, Joseph Torsella, who brought the center into existence, overseeing a $175 million fund-raising campaign and the construction of the center's angular glass-and-granite temple on the northernmost block of Independence Mall.

Stengel, who is returning to Time magazine as managing editor, used his vast reservoir of media savvy to draw attention to the nonpartisan center. His tenure, observers say, was full of activity - slightly glittery and substantive at the same time, like Justice David Souter decked out in Gucci noir.

As a result, Torsella is returning to a center that board chairman John Bogle said he felt "pretty darn good about."

Torsella said he did not foresee any huge changes in direction. "The vision of the Constitution Center as a place and a center for civic discourse is being realized in ever more ambitious ways," he said. "I think Rick has done a fabulous job extending the reach; the programming and traveling exhibitions are adding to the basic attractions. So I think developing and nurturing and expanding those ever-widening initiatives is probably the basic task."

Torsella said he would lead the center for an undetermined period while the board searches for a permanent head. Torsella's tenure could be anywhere from one to five years, according to Bogle.

"This is about making sure that the [center] doesn't skip a beat," Torsella said.

Stengel, who has more or less set the beat at this point, turned out to be an Alistair Cooke of the Constitution: amiably chatting his way through episodes of First Amendment drama, having a go at the landscape of civic engagement, genially traversing everything from the Voting Rights Act to Abraham Lincoln's forays into constitutional controversy.

"For us in Philadelphia, [the center] is massive - not just because of its size, but for its ambitions and for the people who are involved," said Randall Miller, a professor of American history at St. Joseph's University. "I've been impressed. There's a richness that surprised many people who teach constitutional issues. It's worthwhile to send people down there."

Miller said that the center, while still somewhat "amorphous" in its image, is actively "encouraging people to become involved and making people aware of the relevance of the Constitution."

That's the point, Stengel said.

"One of the reasons they brought me in was to increase the visibility of the institution in the region," he said. "There was all this energy put into getting it built and getting it open; we had to figure out what was the National Constitution Center as an entity on Independence Mall."

First and foremost, Stengel had to establish the center as a "place at the heart of the nation now, not just a museum. . . . Active and vital now, not just about things 218 years ago."

Stengel oversaw the "Great Debate" series, which began with a May 2004 panel featuring Robert Bork - "Same-Sex Marriage: Do We Need a Federal Marriage Amendment?" He conducted "Citizens' Constitutional Conversations" - chats with the likes of TV newsman and novelist Jim Lehrer and New York Times journalist Linda Greenhouse. He brought in members of the 9/11 Commission and hosted InfoVoter Technologies' MYVOTE1 Voter Alert Line, a real-time hotline in the last presidential election that logged voters' complaints about irregularities at the polls that are still being debated today.

Controversy and hot-button issues aside, Stengel also presided over the Lincoln Family Fun Days, ginned up interest in the congressionally mandated Constitution Day, hosted the Liberty Medal ceremony, brought in media darlings such as historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, introduced podcasts, peddled the center to outside organizations for meetings, dinners, parties, and on and on.

But probably the two most significant events of Stengel's tenure were a $6.4 million programming grant from the Annenberg Foundation in February, and the big Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary exhibition, "In Search of a Better World."

The Annenberg grant, Stengel said, solidified the center's educational and civic engagement programming - the heart of the center's "mission." But Ben put the center on the map.

The show, which ran from Dec. 15 to April 30, drew about 200,000 - double the center's attendance for the same period in 2004-05.

The Franklin Institute had originally been set as the venue for the exhibition, but technical problems forced the institute to let it go, and Stengel gobbled it up.

"What's a bigger mission-related show for us than Benjamin Franklin?" he asked. "I can't do King Tut. I can't do 'Body Worlds.' But Benjamin Franklin - that's our mission-related sweet spot. It was a home run for us."

According to figures provided by the center, attendance in 2004 reached 968,562; it edged up to 989,903 in 2005. This year, thanks largely to Ben, the center should easily top one million. That extra boost could push the nonprofit private institution into the black for the first time, Stengel said.

Meryl Levitz, head of the Greater Philadelphia Marketing and Tourism Corp., characterized the center as "definitely a brand builder and a traffic builder" that carries out its mission "without dumbing down" the Constitution or history. "The Constitution Center is building in a very healthy way," she said. "That's what you want."

In terms of finances, center officials said there was about a $1 million revenue shortfall in fiscal 2005, but money had been raised during the $175 million capital campaign in anticipation of such growing pains. This fiscal year, with an operating budget of $13.5 million, officials anticipate at least breaking even.

Of that $13.5 million, Stengel said, 60 percent will come from earned income - ticket and trinket sales, facility rentals, and the like - and the rest will come from grants and other unearned-income sources.

Bogle, the board chair, characterized the center as about halfway toward its operating potential. He noted that it has both established itself with historians and built good attendance.

"Everyone wants to get bigger," he said. "That will come with time."

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com.

ONLINE EXTRA

To find out more about the National Constitution Center, visit http:/go.philly.com/constitutioncenter

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