Cover Story: A Historic Challenge
After years of selling a dream — raising funds for something that didn’t even exist yet — the folks at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia weren’t about to be stymied by a couple dozen dead Presbyterians.
The former Philadelphians surfaced, so to speak, in 2001, on the first day of construction on the museum and education center dedicated to enlightening the public about the Constitution of the United States of America. It seems that part of the center’s parking garage was being built on an 18th-century cemetery that had been moved in the 1950s — most of it, anyway.
Once a spade unearthed the first body, construction screeched to a halt while archeologists sifted through mounds of dirt and retrieved a million artifacts: bones — both human and chicken — nails, shards of glass and pottery, and other pieces of 18th-century life in Philadelphia. The discovery of the bodies — people from various ethnic backgrounds who, according to city records, lived and worked in the area surrounding the NCC in Philadelphia’s historic district — lead to the largest urban archeological dig ever.
One year, 37 corpses and $5 million later, construction continued.
The setback was frustrating, but it gave the small group of fundraisers charged with the task of financing the project more time to spread the word — not that they hadn’t had plenty of time already.
The NCC was founded in 1988, after the bicentennial of the Constitution, when Congress issued a charter for it to 1) form a program of outreach and education about the Constitution and 2) build a museum dedicated to the country’s most important document.
“Of course, it was much easier to do the outreach piece than it was to [build the center],” says Suzanne L. Seiter, vice president of development at the NCC.