Newseum donates its distinctive First Amendment facade to Philadelphia history centre

THE WASHINGTON POST – Goodbye Pennsylvania Avenue. Hello Pennsylvania. The four-storey, 50-tonne marble tablet engraved with the First Amendment that graced the former Newseum in Washington, DC, has been donated to the National Constitution Centre in Philadelphia.

“Symbolically and in reality, this is the place where the text of the First Amendment was meant to live in perpetuity,” said the Centre’s president and chief executive Jeffrey Rosen. “It’s extraordinarily meaningful to gaze out through this window to see the place where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were drafted. And now the words of the First Amendment will be there.”

A gift from the Freedom Forum, the foundation dedicated to the First Amendment and the Newseum’s primary funder, the text engraved in pieces of pink marble will be reconfigured to fit in the second-floor atrium at the centre, a nonprofit organisation dedicated to educating and engaging visitors about the United States (US) Constitution. The fate of the landmark facade has been uncertain since January 2019, when the Freedom Forum announced it would sell the building at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue to Johns Hopkins University for USD372.5 million.

“The National Constitution Centre obviously has a mission that is complementary to ours,” Freedom Forum’s Chief Outreach Officer Jonathan Thompson said.

“It was important to us that it was on public view. It was part of the Newseum experience here in DC, and now it will be part of the experience there.” Displaying the text of the First Amendment is especially important now, as the freedoms it promises are under attack in a fractured world, Rosen said.

“In this polarised time in America, the text of the Constitution and the First Amendment in particular are the words that unite us,” he said. “We may disagree about politics, but we are united in our devotion to the Constitution and the First Amendment.”

A rendering of the engraved marble tablet from the closed Newseum that will be displayed at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

The vertical tablet will be removed in pieces over the next several weeks, and will be reconfigured in a horizontal space at the centre.

The cost of the project has not been finalised, Rosen said, but it is being underwritten by J Michael Luttig, a former judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, and his wife, Elizabeth Luttig. Rosen described the judge as “an old friend of mine and a new donor to the centre”. The project is expected to be completed by the fall.

Freedom Forum’s chair and chief executive Jan Neuharth joined the Constitution Centre’s board of trustees after making the gift, Rosen said. The two nonprofit organisations are considering ways to continue working together.
“We will be collaborating closely with Jan and the Freedom Forum, including our hope to create a First Amendment gallery, which may include loans from the Newseum,” Rosen said.

Originally located in a modest space in Arlington, Va the Newseum opened its lavish building in Washington in 2008, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

But with its paid admission in a city filled with free museums, the Newseum struggled with perennial budget deficits and relied on the Freedom Forum for almost USD500 million over its 20-year history. The financial troubles got so bad that in 2017, the foundation said it would consider selling the building. It announced the deal with Johns Hopkins in January 2019.

When the museum closed on December 31, 2019, Freedom Forum officials said they planned to reopen in a smaller space in the future.

Thompson said those plans haven’t been abandoned, although the pandemic has presented challenges.

“I don’t think we ruled it out but we haven’t advanced that conversation into anything concrete,” he said.

“Partnerships like the one we’re entertaining with the Constitution centre have a lot of promise. We want our collection to be visible and accessible. We are excited to hear the centre is considering putting in a First Amendment gallery. That’s the kind of opportunity we’re looking for and excited about.”