The ins and outs of getting a Pa. historical marker

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This marker at Ninth and Christian Streets, which does not include the word "Italian," is a replacement for one that was pulled down soon after its dedication. The signs come in two sizes, one costing about $1,400 and the other about $1,850.

Ever wonder how you get one of those handsome blue-and-gold Pennsylvania state historical markers to honor someone or something you care about?

Like the sparkling new one in front of the Betsy Ross House at 239 Arch St.? Or the one to be dedicated tomorrow at 935 Spring Garden St. to honor Hershey's first candy shop?

According to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), which runs the program, one criterion is that "the person to be marked has been deceased for at least 10 years." Click to the "Contact Us" page of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program's Web site, however, and it displays the marker of Academy Award-winning songwriter Jay Livingston (1915-2001).

Do they think we citizens can't count? To paraphrase Mel Brooks' line in The Producers, "Who do you have to, um, know, to get a marker in this state?"

But, no, it's not like that at all. This is not another expose of government corruption. Times change, rules change.

"That 10-year requirement was just approved by the commission last June," explains Karen Galle, PHMC's historic marker grant manager, the only official in Harrisburg wholly assigned to the program. "You just had to be dead before. Now you have to be dead for 10 years."

"The intent," Galle says, "is to make sure that a person's impact in history has been established."

The program, which boasts more than 2,500 markers, is not the private preserve of muckety-mucks. "Anybody in the whole world can submit a nomination for anything to do with Pennsylvania history," explains Janet S. Klein, PHMC's chair from 1997 to 2003 and still a commissioner.

Anybody, of course, with a taste for cast-aluminum poles, dolled up on top by the state's coat of arms and emblematic text, resplendently done in the state colors by Lake Shore Industries, the Erie foundry that makes them. PHMC's Web site (www. phmc.state.pa.us) explains the application process. Would-be sponsors fill out a nomination form on the site, specifying "fully the historical significance of the person, event, or site" suggested. They are asked to add supporting documentation and draft sample text for the sign.

Nominators can request a City Type Marker (27 by 41 1/2 inches, for about $1,400) or a Roadside Type Marker (45 1/4 by 45 3/4, for about $1,850). Twitterers might feel liberated: The two types permit 40 to 70 words. Twelve copies must be submitted to the PHMC by the annual deadline of Jan. 5. Staff separate applications into the unlikely, those in need of further support, and those recommended. Nominations then go to an independent, five-member Historical Marker Review Panel, which designates each one "approved," "unapproved," or "resubmit." Those decisions go to the commission, which makes the final call.

Paul Steinke, general manager of the Reading Terminal Market, boasts a .750 batting average with the program. He has obtained markers for the terminal and market, the PSFS Building, and architect Louis Kahn. A fourth application, for the former WCAU building on Chestnut Street, was returned for revision this year. "I do it because I care about Philadelphia history," says Steinke, 45, who finds the program extremely "well-administered."

"It's a way to help interpret the city for passersby who may not otherwise realize what this hotel building was, or what great international architect used to occupy this otherwise ordinary office building. It's a way to bring the history of the city down to street level, where anyone can encounter it."

Casual marker readers might be surprised by some PHMC criteria. Simply being born in Pennsylvania doesn't cut it if the proposed person "lived the majority of his or her life and made their impact elsewhere." Association with Pennsylvania "should be substantial." The "persons, places, or events to be marked" must be "of statewide or national significance," not merely "of local or regional interest."

The only automatic, it seems, comes in criterion No. 9, which states that "governors of Pennsylvania are to be approved upon nomination."

The commission gets about 70 applications each year and tries to approve about 30, Galle says. Philadelphia, she says, "is always the county with the most markers approved."

It also gets the most nominations. Philadelphia's African American history is particularly well-served: 78 of the city's 235 markers link to it. "In the 1990s," explains Klein, "the William Penn Foundation gave a grant for black-history markers."

All in all, Klein thinks the system works well. "I never heard of anyone offering any bribes," she says. "I think that our process protects us."

Traditionally, the state splits the costs of a marker with its sponsor. According to Galle, the state budget annually contains about $30,000 for markers. Gov. Rendell's proposed budget for fiscal 2010, however, eliminates the amount. If that doesn't change, Galle says, sponsors will have to pick up the entire cost. "It's a shame," she says, "because it's really a small amount for a very popular public program."

Klein and Galle teem with marker lore. For instance, the cast-aluminum sign for Amedeo Obici (1877-1947), who founded Planters Peanuts in Wilkes-Barre, arrived with a typo.

A few years ago, PHMC, in recognition of ethnic diversity around the so-called Italian Market, approved the marker at Ninth and Christian Streets that reads "South 9th Street Curb Market"; the word Italian didn't make the text.

"That night after the dedication," remembers Klein, "it was pulled down."

PHMC restored the Ninth Street marker, as it fixes others if money is available and Galle knows that a marker is missing or damaged.

"Usually," she says, "it's either been taken, or was damaged by a vehicle, or was removed for construction and misplaced." The marker where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, at Seventh and Market Streets, for instance, is missing.

"What I love about the program," Klein says, "is the diversity, the people, the excitement. . . . The second part is the education, the people who walk past a marker and say, 'Oh, I didn't know that!' "

PHMC published a handsome Guide to the State Historical Markers of Pennsylvania in 2000, with full text of all markers to that date. Unfortunately, it's out of print. For the moment, anyone wishing to read the text of all Pennsylvania markers must call them up on the Web site or do some gonzo driving. "I think the frustration," Klein says, "is that if you're driving out on the highway, there's no way to read them."

The good news? This fall it will be illegal in Philadelphia to drive, yap on a cell phone, and try to read a historical marker at the same time.

 


Contact staff writer Carlin Romano at 215-854-5615 or cromano@phillynews.com.