Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Museum of the American Revolution: Falling Out of Valley Forge and Marching Into Philadelphia

If you don’t walk out of Philadelphia's newest jewel, the new Museum of the American Revolution (MOAR) with a new understanding of and appreciation for the sacrifices people suffered in order to settle the colonies and fight for independence, in the process creating a new nation and becoming a new player on the world political and economic scene,you've missed one of the main points of the experience.  (Click here for a visual tour).

This past weekend I had the privilege of attending a founding-members only preview grand opening of the new Museum. I left with a renewed sense of awe that, despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles and odds stacked against the American colonists in taking on the most powerful and wealthiest empire in the world, and the sheer luck - and unlikely alliances  - that emerged to help us prevail, We the People somehow accomplished something unbelievable and unheard of – a republic form of government in which the people rule themselves.

We may have drafted the Declaration of Independence from Great Britain in 1776, but we didn’t gain true freedom until 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris, and even then for some time thereafter the greatest focus was on the rights of each of the thirteen colonies. Having just thrown off a far-away powerful central government (a monarchy), Americans were in no mood to even consider the kind of strong central government eventually framed by the Philadelphia Convention in 1787. This museum tells these tales, and many other, lesser-known facts and stories surrounding the American Revolution.

The path that the MOAR took to arrive at its new home at Third and Walnut in Philadelphia, and the length of time it took to accomplish it, lasted for more years than the actual revolution itself, and similarly, was no small feat against many obstacles over a long span of time. The gorgeous facility is a testament to the tenacity and dedication of its champions in finding a home for it, getting it built, and finally, at long last, dramatically displaying the artifacts and paying appropriate tribute to the War for Independence.

Efforts to bring the Museum to our area here in the suburbs date back as far as 1999 when the National Park Service and the MOAR (formerly known as the American Revolution Center, or ARC) collaborated on plans for a museum next to Valley Forge National Historical Park’s (VFNHP) welcome center.

In 2005, however, the ARC announced plans for its own museum and conference center two miles away. Philanthroper (and new chairman of the museum’s board of directors) H.F.”Gerry” Lenfest was brought in to try to move the project forward. He personally ponied up the $4.1M to purchase 78 acres of privately owned land adjacent to the VFNHP from the St. Gabe’s protectorate (Archdiocese of Philadelphia) in Lower Providence Township the day after the LPT Planning Commission approved the ARC’s request to rezone the parcel to allowed development beyond a museum.

The reasons for pulling the plug on the VFNHP location were referenced as park service red tape, federal fundraising concerns – the ARC board was nervous about the Park Service’s difficulties funding the maintenance of property and collections they already owned – and size restrictions on the proposed building footprint.

toppling a statue of King George III
However, the residents of primarily the Audubon portion of the Township (and other nonresidents outside the Township) were opposed to the development of the 78 acres. What soured many Audubon residents at the time on the project was the addition of a hotel and conference center and several small retail options to the project, added to help fund the cost of running the Museum and preserve the collection going forward. Also, at the time, the new four-way cloverleaf at 422 was just a fantasy, and traffic in Audubon, already difficult and of necessity directed through Audubon for access to and from the Route 422/Oaks, was envisioned to only worsen with the addition of the traffic the Museum would undoubtedly bring. Zoning challenges and legal battles ensued.

After spending millions of dollars developing plans and fighting in court, and years’ worth of time and effort, in 2009 Lenfest and the rest of the executives on the board realized that they had to rise above the local political squabbles and courtroom drama – that getting this long-envisioned project built and open to the public was of far more importance than the longer-term legal and political efforts of trying to convince a suburban community that it should want a project of national significance that would put it on the map and bring jobs, tax and tourist dollars to its coffers.

Lenfest and Ed Rendell brokered a deal for a land swap:  the ARC would abandon their plans to build the museum in or near VFNHP and moved the project to Center City. The new museum would be located at 3rd and Chestnut Street in downtown Philadelphia, within a 55-acre federal park space, on the site of the former welcome center built for the 1976 bicentennial, in exchange for the National Park Service receiving ownership of the 78-acre parcel of private land owned by the American Revolution Center within the boundary of VFNHP.

(Many, many articles [including my own] have been written detailing the headaches of trying to work with the National Park Service, and in trying to get the project built here in LP, which I won’t revisit here – Google or check out some of the links at the bottom of this article if you want more information).

Locally, I played a role in this effort circa 2008-2009 as a member of and chair of our Zoning Hearing Board that conducted many evenings’ worth of hearings, listening to hours of witness testimony and reviewing over one hundred exhibits in a validity challenge to the zoning of the 78-acre parcel. At one point there were a total of ten attorneys representing various parties in the hearings!

 Also, one of our current township supervisors, Colleen Eckman, had a starring role, arguably launching her local political career on this one “not in my backyard” issue, after becoming a vocal opponent of the project (which would have been located not far from her home in Audubon) and also serving as one of the witnesses in the zoning validity challenge hearings questioning the proper zoning of the parcel.

So – at long last, in 2017, here it is and here we are. Lower Providence's loss is Philly's gain. Much has already  (here, here,  here,  hereherehere, and here -- both in the NY Times and Philly Inquirer) been published about the Museum since it opened, detailing its displays and collection.  Maybe it's just that as a member of DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution, who donated the painting "Siege at Yorktown" to the Museum) I had more than a casual interest in the subject matter, but I found it totally absorbing and, of course, long overdue. Most importantly, take the time to go see this wonderful addition to the Philadelphia historical scene in person. Consider becoming a member to help support the museum going forward. Check out the gift shop, well-stocked with items not typically found in tourist traps, to which a section is devoted specifically to items about the Continental Army’s brutal winter at Valley Forge.

And last, but certainly not least, the next time you feel defeated about something, allow yourself to be inspired by the story of We the People to think about how much American success in the American Revolution illustrates the impossible odds that can be overcome and the things that can be accomplished by brave, determined people with tenacity and the courage of their convictions.  



http://www.pottsmerc.com/article/MP/20090410/NEWS01/304109982 )

Gerry Lenfest at 4-19-17 ribbon cutting

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