Franklin Court and the Centennial Challenge (Spring 2007 Trust Magazine briefing)

May 01, 2007

If Benjamin Franklin suddenly appeared in Philadelphia, he wouldn’t be able to go home—his house, in Philadelphia’s historic area, was razed in 1812, and existing records are insufficient to reproduce it. But he might be able to feel its vibes. That’s because, marking the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, the architect Robert Venturi developed a skeletal, steelframed version of the building—a so-called ghost structure connecting visitors to that founding father and the city’s revolutionary roots.

The site, Franklin Court, includes an underground museum with interesting artifacts, pictures and quotations that strengthen the history lesson. Over the years, however, this attraction has not fared well, partly because it does not offer visitors the opportunity to interact with the exhibits, the mode of museum presentation that now excites audiences.

To modernize the museum, an $18-million redesign was announced in February. Pew pledged $6 million, pending equal amounts from the federal government and from community and state leaders.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne was present to praise the effort, which he links to what he calls the “Centennial Challenge” benefiting the National Park System. In 2016, the system celebrates its centennial, and how bright the candles will glow depends on a proposed $2 billion over a decade to fund the 390 parks and national monuments under the umbrella of the National Park Service; those funds are separate from the service’s annual budget. If approved by Congress, 10-year support of $100 million yearly would be matched by private pledges, with Philadelphia first to take part.

In March, at a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on his department’s budget, Kempthorne was asked how he thought other potential funders would respond to the matching challenge. “They do not want to be the margin of survival for the parks,” he said. “They’re willing to step up and to be the margin of excellence.” He cited the event at Franklin Court and the funding structure offered by Pew. “So there’s $18 million that’s real that shows you the response we get from the foundations and the private sector.”

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