Dennis Reidenbach moved to Philadelphia in July 1976, as the city's combative mayor, Frank L. Rizzo, was warning tourists to avoid the Bicentennial of American independence because he feared protests.
Reidenbach built a career with the National Park Service that focused on finding ways to attract many more tourists to the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and other historic sites as federal park budgets shrank. He rose to superintendent at Independence National Historical Park and, since 2007, has headed the service's 13-state Northeast region.
On the eve of his retirement, in his office overlooking the Independence Mall sites, Reidenbach explained how his generation of park service bosses has had to turn to rich industrialists and foundation trustees like the Annenbergs, Lenfests, and Pews, who have been willing to back particular visions of how historic sites ought to look with tens of millions of tax-protected dollars.
That prospect might have irked New Deal bureaucrats, but it felt natural to Reidenbach. He's a graduate of Grove City College, the staunchly independent, capitalist- and Christian-friendly Western Pennsylvania school that has been a favorite charity of the Pews since before they founded what is now Sunoco in the late 1800s. Two of Reidenbach's children are also Grovers.
"I've had many conversations with Rebecca Rimel about my Pew roots," said Reidenbach of the executive who has run the Pew family charities since 1994. "I believe J. Howard Pew would have been thrilled with the partnership between Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Park Service."
Pew influence helped teach the park service how to develop "entrepreneurial, self-sustaining" business plans, Reidenbach said. A focus on cash flow helped his agency sell the Pew interests on backing an updated Franklin Court museum, he said. A bond issue to help pay for the new Gettysburg battlefield visitor center raised cash for the project that attracted private backers like cable TV millionaire H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, who is also an owner of The Inquirer.
Reidenbach said salesmanship was useful in the public sector as well, as he saw when former Mayor Ed Rendell passionately lobbied President Bill Clinton on federal backing for improvements to the formerly windswept mall so it could have facilities such as the current Liberty Bell pavilion, which also attracted dollars from the Annenberg Foundation.
It's one thing to find nameplate donors for famous sites like Gettysburg or a proposed new Statue of Liberty visitor center. Reidenbach's region also includes politically selected parks like Steamtown National Historic Site, the Scranton museum critics complained was far from truly historic rail centers. "Steamtown became a success because we were able to attract all those passionate railroad volunteers," Reidenbach said.
Reidenbach is even optimistic about the newest national park, the First State National Monument in Delaware, a list of unrelated sites stitched together because the state's Democratic U.S. senators thought it needed a national park. First State has no congressional budget, but Reidenbach was able to designate a Wilmington-bred park service veteran as its first director, pleasing all concerned.
Reidenbach is looking forward to watching the blocky Bicentennial-era park visitor center in Society Hill demolished next year to make room for a largely private American Revolution museum, as part of a land swap that also enlarged the park at Valley Forge.
Annenbergs and Pews and their family offices have mostly left Philadelphia, and Lenfest has said he intends to give most of his money away before he dies. Reidenbach said he's unsure who will be the next generation of Philadelphia historical-park donors.
Maybe corporations, he suggested.