It's revolutionary: A solemn start, celebratory finish as new museum opens

A crowd gathers for the opening ceremony of the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia,PA on April 19, 2017

Later in the day the streets of Old City would ring with songs from Hamilton, the musical, and with stirring calls from a procession of historians, military leaders, and politicians.

But early Wednesday morning, on the lawn of Washington Square under a slate-gray sky, there was only the silence of the dead and the quiet words of those who came to honor them.

There could be no more somber a place — and none more appropriate, some there said — to begin the formal opening ceremonies of the new Museum of the American Revolution.

The opening-day celebration of a dazzling, $120 million museum began on a six-acre green that was and remains a burial ground for thousands of unknowns who lie beneath its paths — soldiers of the Continental Army, British troops, American Indians, black people both freed and enslaved.

“We’re on hallowed ground,” said Ray Halbritter, representative of the Oneida Nation, which fought beside the American colonists. “We remember those who have gone before us.”

He stood by the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, defined by its bronze statue of George Washington, which was copied from the original marble figure in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond.

At Washington’s feet rest a sarcophagus and a dancing eternal flame.

“Freedom,” reads an inscription, “is a light for which many men have died in darkness.”

About 400 gathered to hear prayers and gratitude for those who gave their lives in the effort to bring the nation into being. Squads of reenactors surrounded the monument, fifes and drums at the ready. People walking to work paused, while others stayed to absorb every moment.

“We booked this trip a year ago,” said Steven Bortnick, a Revolutionary War buff who held a large “Join or Die” flag, and had traveled here from Boston with Rena Ferioli. “We’ve come for the museum.”

It wasn’t only troops who fought and won the Revolution, said museum CEO and president Michael Quinn. It was women, and Natives, and African Americans — and the museum tells their stories.

The museum faithfully depicts the nation’s struggle for birth, celebrating that victory while showing how close the emerging nation came to defeat. If the war had gone the other way, the men celebrated as Founding Fathers would have been hanged for treason. The galleries hold more than 400 artifacts, along with digital displays and lifesize dioramas.

“It’s a great day for Philadelphia, and a great day for America,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell, a museum board member.

From the square, the crowd moved to Independence Mall, growing as it went, and finally to the door of the museum.

“I welcome you to the neighborhood,” said Cynthia MacLeod, superintendent of Independence National Historical Park, “with a hearty, 18th-century ‘Huzzah!’ ”

People came from down the street and across the East.

There were representatives of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, Christ Church, and Mikveh Israel synagogue. South Carolina sent an adjutant general, New Hampshire  its First Regiment, a reenactors’ troupe. Others came from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Georgia.

There were governors, former governors, and lieutenant governors from Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Rhode Island — and one former vice president, Joe Biden.

“I think we’re the only country in the world whose national anthem ends with a question: Does that star-spangled banner yet wave?” Biden told the crowd outside the museum. “Thus far, the resounding answer is yes.”

Mayor Kenney spoke. So did historian David McCullough. And Vincent Brown, a Harvard University history professor who noted that the birth of a nation founded on freedom didn’t mean everyone who lived there was free.

The longest and loudest ovations were for H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, the former owner of the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com whose years of dogged advocacy helped create the museum. That struggle went on longer than the war itself, which lasted eight years, from 1775 to 1783.

Lenfest and his wife, Marguerite, have given $50 million in matching funds. They helped cut a blue ribbon to formally open the museum.

“It’s not just a museum of artifacts,” Lenfest said. “It represents the spirit, the responsibility of being free.”

At one point people in the crowd might have felt as if they were on Broadway. “History has its eyes on you,” sang Sydney James Harcourt, an original Hamilton cast member, joined by students from the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

“What a morning,” McCullough said. “What a morning to be grateful to be an American. ... The American Revolution still goes on.”