PHILADELPHIA -- At one end of Independence Mall, at the historic center of this city where so much of America's foundational history was made with parchment and ink, stands the brick and mortar of Independence Hall. Built between 1732-56, this model of what is called the Georgian style of architecture is where independence was voted and declared, and where, 11 years later, the Constitution was drafted.
At the other end of the mall sparkles a modernist jewel of America's civic life, the National Constitution Center, a nongovernment institution that opened July 4, 2003, and already has received more than 2 million visitors. It is built of gray Indiana limestone -- it is possible, even in Philadelphia, to have a surfeit of red brick -- and lots of glass. The strikingly different, yet compatible, styles of the 18th century building where the Constitution was drafted and the 21st century building where it is explicated and studied in its third century is an architectural bow to the fact that a constitution ratified by a mostly rural nation of 4 million persons, most of whom lived within 20 miles of Atlantic tidewater, still suits an urban nation that extends 2,500 miles into the Pacific.
The center is a marvel of exhibits, many of them interactive. For example, it uses newspapers and film to give immediacy to such episodes as the Supreme Court holding in 1952 that President Truman exceeded his constitutional powers -- what a thought: there are limits on the commander in chief's powers -- when he seized the nation's steel mills to prevent a labor dispute from disrupting war production. And it shows President Eisenhower, 13 years after sending paratroopers into Normandy, sending them to Central High School in Little Rock.
Throughout, the center illustrates what professor Felix Frankfurter -- before he became Justice Frankfurter -- was trying to express more than 70 years ago when he said, ``If the Thames is 'liquid history,' the Constitution of the United States is most significantly not a document but a stream of history.'' But it is, first and always, a document that is to be understood, as the greatest American jurist, John Marshall said, ``chiefly from its words.''
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