QUIET ON THE SET PIECE

Re-creating Independence Hall

"So this is the amazing facsimile of the cradle of American liberty," I say softly to myself, waiting to feel all tingly and reverential as I stand in the Declaration Chamber of the Independence Hall replica across the street from Knott's Berry Farm. While I wait, I read again the sign on the door, which says this is the room where "Richard Henry Lee, on June 7, 1776, moved that these 13 colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states." It's nearly 5 p.m., the sun is setting over Beach Boulevard, and I'm the only one in the building, except for the woman who works the cash register in the gift shop and basically runs the place. Outside, a confused rooster is crowing its manly little heart out.

Knott's officials say each of the building's 140,000 bricks is an exact copy of its counterpart in the original Independence Hall in Philadelphia. They say the 2,075-pound Liberty Bell replica in the entrance gallery weighs just 5 pounds less than the original. They say the 10-foot-wide clock that adorns each of the tower's four faces is exactly like the original's. They say the redwood "widow's rail" that runs the perimeter of the hall's roof resembles the original in every way.

I haven't checked any of that, so I'll take their word for it. I think it's nice that the replica's builders reproduced such meticulous details back in 1966. That's why Old Man Knott built the hall in the first place. He wanted schoolchildren—and lots of tourists—to see the building where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were signed.

Of course, the land immediately outside the re-created Independence Hall looks as little like colonial Philadelphia as does modern Philadelphia. A huge parking lot borders the hall on two sides, with a duck pond in the back and Beach Boulevard on the left. The hall is an island of history floating in Buena Park—a city completely dependent on manufactured thrills and experiences.

The authenticity dies indoors. I'm sure the carriage parked inside the hall is authentic in every way, but I seem to recall that, much as they do today, people 200 years ago parked their vehicles outside. The Declaration Chamber's Windsor chairs and quill pens also look fine, but the original room probably lacked spectator benches. I also doubt that the largest room in the original Independence Hall housed a gift shop that featured an old 25-cent machine that marched dolls dressed like Revolutionary War soldiers around in a circle and sold post cards; plastic pens; and those cheap, chemically aged copies of American historical documents. Then again, I could be wrong.

That aside, the question everyone who goes through the hall should ask is: Would Knott have re-created the Constitution's birthplace if it were a brothel or tavern instead of a town hall? Does it really matter that we see the place where John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the rest got together and signed the nation's founding documents? Judging from attendance, probably not.

Nonetheless, visitors who do enter the hall see these words on the wall over the Liberty Bell copy: "Dedicated to the supreme architect upon whose plan master builders brought forth a new nation." The words "free" and "liberty" appear throughout the hall. Sadly, no exhibit points out how African slaves lived up and down the seaboard. Nothing in the Declaration or the Constitution freed them. They probably weren't even allowed in the original hall. There aren't many of their descendants hanging around this replica, either.

But Knott's hall isn't about explaining either the grand vision or the hypocrisy behind the Declaration and Constitution—only showing people what the drapes and floor tiles looked like when the documents were getting printed. As such, the hall has become nothing more than a setting for annual Fourth of July fireworks shows and political photo ops. On Sept. 17, 1987, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Constitution's signing, state Supreme Court Justice Malcolm Lucas made citizens out of 100 immigrants at the hall while then-Governor George Deukmejian spoke. Afterward, Deukmejian hosted a $200-per-head fund-raiser outside for 1,500 supporters. A few days later, Knott's set off balloons and re-enacted various Revolutionary War battles.

But that's the past. Today, Independence Hall is quiet. Sometimes, all you can hear is the rooster crowing outside.

 
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