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Plaques honoring Declaration of Independence signers in Philly have been forsaken, and no one knows who’s responsible for them

56 plaques are embedded in the sidewalk along the 600 block of Chestnut Street, celebrating all the signers of the Declaration of Independence. (Tom Gralish/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

John Hancock has lost his face. So has Pennsylvania’s Samuel Clymer.

So have 12 other of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence whose memorial plaques have been consigned to the soles and heels of pedestrians in the 600 block of Chestnut Street, a block from where they put their lives on the line on July 4, 1776.

These days, the bronze plaques embedded in a sidewalk outside a Wawa, have become orphans, trodden upon daily and, literally, defaced.

They were donated by the Franklin Mint — whose roots, coincidentally, are in Wawa, Pennsylvania — for the city’s Bicentennial celebration in 1976.

It is not even clear who owns them, and responsibility for their maintenance appears to have slipped through the sidewalk cracks.

Along with the disappearance of the faces, evidently so has the interest in preserving the plaques.

How the faces disappeared is a mystery. Although a police spokesperson said that no reports of vandalism or theft have been reported, the remnants of glue and missing bolts suggest the faces were removed.

“That’s terribly sad,” said Ann Meredith, who as director of the erstwhile “Lights of Liberty” group had a lot to do with how the plaques wound up where they are today.

As part of an exhibit that The Philadelphia Inquirer called a “delightful” and “appropriate way” to teach history, the plaques were dedicated on May 10, 1975, the 200th anniversary of the convening of the Continental Congress.

Just over a square foot, each one contained the image of a signer and a replica of the signature that appeared on the Declaration. They were mounted beneath the arches of brick colonnades on the Judge Lewis Quadrangle, along with flags of the states, ready for a Bicentennial celebration for which Philadelphia aspired to be a centerpiece.

After the Bicentennial, Independence National Historical Park planned a major transformation.

In 1999, Congress authorized the National Park Service to build the Gateway Visitors Center at the site of the pavilions, so the structures had to go. Meredith didn’t want the plaques to go with them.

“We found out the NPS was going to dispose of them,” said Meredith, who was running Lights of Liberty, a historical sound-and-light show that she described as “a theme-park experience in one of the most protected historical areas in America,” on Independence Mall. “We asked, ‘Can we have them?'”

The plaques were to be installed on Chestnut, just outside the park’s property, as a “Signers Walk” — an “added feature” to the light show, said Meredith.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who then was Philadelphia’s mayor, appeared at the 1999 dedication ceremony with a group of young descendants of the signers.

Meredith recalled it well: Her daughter participated.

“Everybody was happy,” said Meredith, now executive director of Herald Publishing, a division of the Bucks County Herald. The plaques “became a popular stop for tour guides.”

Meredith said that when she left Lights of Liberty in 2007, the plaques were in good shape.

The show eventually was taken over by Historic Philadelphia Inc., which produced the higher-tech “Lights of Liberty 360,” which included an indoor theater inside the Public Ledger Building.

Officials with the group, the city, the National Park Service, and the Center City District, whose offices are on the same block, said they did not know who had assumed ownership of or who was responsible for maintaining the plaques.

“I can’t say there was a plan for taking care of them in perpetuity,” said Meredith.

“I guess they were never meant for sidewalk use,” she said, adding she was not sanguine about their future.

“They were a nice enhancement. They were a pleasant surprise. I don’t think anyone would miss them if they weren’t there.”


(c) 2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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