24 December 2008 |
We’re to look around these days for small gifts, for tokens.
Coming down from the Ben Franklin Bridge the winter city greets us, a night scene rarely so jeweled. The colored balls high in the perimeter trees of Franklin Square, not quite cliché some ten years after being introduced in Rittenhouse Square, enervate the foreground; and far, far beyond a single chimney’s wisp of smoke dangles from the roof of the Comcast Center. The smoke is as languid and sweet to the eye as that which dances from the brush of Pissarro, or Gustave Caillebotte, as restful as the front paw and foreleg of the moose below the Washington Monument on Eakins’ Oval.
The late 19th century scene behind the Art Museum is never better than in December. Our eyes are drawn out, beyond the construction, to Lemon Hill, to the dim burgundy and slate skyline of Powelton Village, a vernacular of scale and proportion only reinforced by Erdy McHenry’s spinning tower rising above; there is train trestle and chimney again. There is river and Fairmount’s rosette, and in the grainy, yellowing light there is the searing red of Mark di Suvero’s Iroquois. Santa feels unnecessary.
And yet he’s delivered, a week or so early, almost eight years since so many of us, collectively, wrote. Dear Santa, Dear Dick Cheney, Dear Senator Specter, Dear CEO of Halliburton and of Johnson Controls and of Wackenhut, Dear Incompetent and Hateful and anti-Government Bureaucracy . . . The barricades that have since 9/11 truncated the Statehouse Garden (Independence Square), that for a time made it illegal to walk below the garden on Sixth Street, that for summers on end have held up limpid and vulgar bunting, that have effectively separated us from our great symbol of courage and liberty, are now gone. The effect, even as witnessed tonight in darkness, is profound.
There is still an unnecessary security layer between us and Independence Hall — tickets, alone, would control access to the building — but the visual and emotional presence of that layer is restrained. Even the “keep out” signs are elegant and respectful in their wording: “No Entry,” they read, “at this Point.” The Statehouse Garden almost feels as it did before; we can stand now at Commodore Barry’s back or under the London Plane tree below the bell tower and measure ourselves in its presence. What a relief.
To the lovely, soft-spoken security guard with the vague Midwestern accent I spoke with last night, the square feels again, open. “It’s an aesthetic improvement,” she said.
I say it’s more. The story here is the building’s intimacy, the personal connection between citizen and nation. Some part of that connection has been returned. The Chestnut Street sidewalk may never feel as it did, for example, in Peter Frederick Rothermel’s State House on the Day of the Battle of Germantown. None of us will sit at the building’s edge, upon the national stoop. But now we can come close, or closer than we have since the Bush administration changed our perception of what is real.
“I think I can lose my hostility now,” I told the gentle security guard. “You and a lot of people,” she answered, and she turned away to resume her silent post.