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History's Headlines: Liberty Bell Shrine is 50 years young

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Apr 27 2012 03:40:26 PM CDT
Updated On: Apr 30 2012 04:35:34 PM CDT

The Liberty Bell draws about a million people to Philadelphia every year, but the bell might not even be around today if Allentown hadn't stepped up the plate many years ago.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

Allentown has long had a love affair with the Liberty Bell.  A logo featuring the national icon has popped up on everything from dry cleaners to beer distributors.

How far back does it go? Those who remember their local history will recall that from September of 1777 to June of 1778 the Liberty Bell was housed in Allentown underneath the floor of Zion’s UCC Church. The historical record also shows it stopped here in 1893 on its way back to Philadelphia from the World’s Fair in Chicago.

But it was not until 1962, 50 years ago, that the Liberty Bell Shrine Museum was built at Zion’s Church to honor the bell and its links to the Lehigh Valley.

zion_church In 1958, members of Zion’s consistory began planning for the bicentennial of both the church and Allentown. That May, church member Ralph Griesemer was appointed to chair a committee to begin this process. Working closely with him was Allentown physician Dr. Morgan Person.

Person had a long history of interest in the Liberty Bell and its coming to Allentown during the Revolution. It was his dream of establishing a fitting memorial to both the Liberty Bell and the church.

The real event that inspired the shrine’s creation came in 1959 when Pennsylvania Governor David Lawrence offered to donate to the church a full size replica of the Liberty Bell that had been donated to the state as a gift by the federal government. In 1950 the U.S. Treasury Department, assisted by several private companies, selected the Paccard Foundry (established in 1796 in Annecy-le-Vieux, France and still making bells today) to make a replica of the Liberty Bell and send one to each of the then-48 states and to U.S territories.  It was part of savings bond sales campaign that year entitled “Save For Your Independence.”

pass_and_stowe This gift from the governor was received on April 25 of 1959. The Liberty Bell replica was placed in front of the church to serve as a reminder to the public of the upcoming events.

But it also sparked discussion within Zion’s committee that perhaps something more should be done. With the approval of the church’s consistory, the committee decided to reorganize as a community-wide, non-profit, non-sectarian organization, rather than one restricted to the congregation.

In order to accomplish this task the committee size was increased from 10 to 21 with 10 of the new members coming from outside the church. On September 22, 1959 this group was incorporated as the Liberty Bell Shrine of Allentown. The incorporators were Griesemer, Frank Cline, Rev. Ernest F. Andrews, Zion’s pastor, Anna E.L. Bleiler, Katherine K. Griesemer, General Harry A. Markle Jr. and Dr. Morgan Person.

liberty_bell_shrine At this point a decision was made to build a special space under the church’s foundation to celebrate both the Liberty Bell and the church’s and Allentown’s links to it. A fundraising drive was begun with money being donated by the city and county as well as by numerous local foundations. In the end, $80,000- a considerable sum in 1959- was raised for the shrine’s construction.

In 1960 Person began the exacting task of determining exactly where the Liberty Bell had been placed under the old church. “By crawling beneath the floor of the present church,” states the shrine’s official history, “and, then, by digging several cross trenches in the manner of archaeological research, it was found that a number of walls existed under the surface…. The largest perimeter walls were those of the third church erected in 1838, while the buried inner walls, when traced in their course, corresponded precisely to the dimensions of the second church,” where the bell had been hidden.

shrine With this information in hand, on January 2, 1961, work on the shrine began. The design for the shrine was created by local architect Theodore W. Litzenberger. Allentown architects Wolf and Hahn also contributed to the shrine’s design. An entrance was made through the east side of the façade of the church. Work went along rapidly. Among the items included were paintings of the Liberty Bell’s journey to Allentown during the Revolution.

On May 30, 1962, the Liberty Bell Shrine was dedicated as the climax of Allentown’s bicentennial celebration. The principle speaker that day was U.S. Senator Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania. Other program participants were State Senator John T. Van Sant, Rabbi William Greenberg, Dr. Melville J. Boyer, Rev. Andrews and General Markle.

Over the years since that time the Liberty Bell Shrine Museum has become a focal point for visitors to the Lehigh Valley. For the 50th anniversary the shrine board plans an exhibit based around the evolution of the Liberty Bell from a symbol of America’s independence to an internationally recognized icon of basic human rights around the world.