Liberty Bell's twin an orphan? Fate of the queen's Bicentennial gift is up in the air at American Revolution Center site.

Posted: July 13, 2009

Among a thousand questions raised by the American Revolution Center's move from Valley Forge to Philadelphia is this:

What happens to the bell?

No, not the Liberty Bell. It's staying put.

The Bicentennial Bell. The bell that hangs outside the Independence Living History Center, designated as the future home of the Revolution Center, known as ARC.

The Bicentennial Bell is a replica of the Liberty Bell, cast at the same London foundry, transported to the United States, presented by Queen Elizabeth II in 1976 - and promptly forgotten.

Many people don't even know it's there. The bell hides inside its 130-foot brick tower, a square structure that in 1976 must have looked every bit as sleek and forward-thinking as, say, Veterans Stadium.

Still, the bell was a gift of friendship from the people of Britain to the people of the United States. And, even better, it afforded Philadelphians the priceless opportunity to see Queen Elizabeth come face to face with Frank Rizzo.

Jane Cowley, spokeswoman for Independence National Historical Park, said it was uncertain what would happen to the bell when ARC takes over Third and Chestnut.

"That's one of the details we need to work on," she said.

The agreement between the center and the federal government was announced only this month. It's unclear whether ARC will renovate the building, which once served as the visitor center, or knock it down and start again.

Whatever happens, Cowley said, the bell will remain property of the government.

ARC president Bruce Cole is a big fan of the bell, he said, for its connections to history and to the queen.

"I hope we can ring it when ARC's building opens," he said.

Um, actually, the bell is broken.

"It's not cracked, is it?"

No, but the ringing mechanism hasn't worked for at least four years, and the National Park Service doesn't have money to fix it. The Bicentennial Bell is as silent as its better-known sister.

Of course, at the moment Cole and park officials have bigger worries.

ARC exists only in the minds of its supporters, who planned to build a world-class museum complex on private land inside Valley Forge National Historical Park. But after years of battling the Park Service and irate neighbors, and in the face of litigation, ARC executives agreed to trade their 78 acres at Valley Forge for the property in Old City.

Completing details of the swap could take a year. Against those demands, even a six-ton bell can seem small. But there was a moment when the Bicentennial Bell stood front and center.

A royal visit

The queen was the first British monarch to set foot in Philadelphia.

Queen Elizabeth, strong and dark-haired, had just turned 50. And Rizzo, well, he was still a lion, brash and barrel-chested, a second-term mayor who at 55 saw big things ahead.

That day he didn't rush to greet the queen. He waited, as protocol dictated, for her to come to him.

The Inquirer and other Philadelphia newspapers covered the event exhaustively, devoting column after column to minute-by-minute accounts:

The royal yacht, the Britannia, docked at Penn's Landing at 10:37 a.m. July 6, saluted by geysers from fireboats on the Delaware River. By 11, the queen had been swept to City Hall, cheered by thousands of well-wishers and serenaded by a flock of strutting, strumming Mummers.

The mayor, basking in royal attention, gave the queen 10 signed engravings by Andrew Wyeth. "I hope your stay is pleasurable and that you bring back fond memories of this great city," he told her.

The queen arrived as the direct descendent of King George III, once known here as George the Tyrant. But the passage of 200 years had softened hard feelings.

The queen and her husband, Prince Philip, hosted 54 guests for lunch on the yacht. Conductor Eugene Ormandy dined, as did TV host Mike Douglas and the mayor, whose name the queen pronounced "Rit-zo."

She arrived at the visitor center promptly at 3 p.m. to dedicate the bell, already installed in its tower. She told an estimated 20,000 that the bell was inscribed "Let freedom ring."

"It is a message," the queen said, "in which both our people can join and which I hope will be heard around the world for centuries to come."

Actually, most people couldn't hear her at all. And people at the back of the throng couldn't see.

Near Market Street, 400 Irish marched in protest, demanding that the queen give back Northern Ireland. The pastor of a Collingswood fundamentalist church set up a public-address system to get his message to the queen.

"Put the Bible verse on the bell!" the Rev. Carl McIntire said repeatedly.

"Shut up, you crackpot," somebody answered.

The preacher was upset that the biblical inscription on the Liberty Bell, "Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof," was left off the replica.

After the dedication, the queen made her way through the historic district, escorted by Hobart Cawood, Independence Park's 41-year-old superintendent. He bowed upon being introduced.

"We were sort of numb to what was happening," recalled Cawood, who now is retired and living near Winston-Salem, N.C.

That Bicentennial year had become a blur even before the queen arrived. The park had hosted millions of visitors, including world leaders. President Gerald R. Ford had come. The prime minister of Israel. The king of Norway. The president of France.

At the end of the afternoon, Cawood was invited to the yacht, where he sat with the queen and the prince, chatting about the day.

"She was very pleased," said Cawood, 74. "As I started out the door, she says, 'By the way, Margaret wants to be remembered to you.' Her sister Margaret had been there in 1974. And that was just terrific."

The forgotten bell

The Bicentennial Bell was supposed to be rung upon the coronation of British monarchs and the inauguration of U.S. presidents - and rung again, in muted tones, upon their deaths.

Park Service officials decided they also would ring the bell at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily. Otherwise tourists would never get a chance to hear it. Park staffers even made up T-shirts: "Let freedom ring - at 11 and 3."

For a while, officials considered moving the Liberty Bell into the visitor center, for symmetry: The silent bell below, the ringing bell above.

It never happened. And in the years since 1976, the Bicentennial Bell has been largely forgotten, a spare, pseudo-Liberty Bell.

What will be its fate?

"I haven't given it any thought," said Lynn Haskin, head of the Old City District's governing board. "From a historical point of view, it's certainly something that will have to be dealt with."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

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