A nine-foot bust of Benjamin Franklin, commissioned by the city of Philadelphia, was installed on Oct. 3 and dedicated in Girard Fountain Park at 4th and Arch Streets in historic downtown Philadelphia at 10 a.m. on Oct. 5, 2007.
In 2003, the city of Philadelphia launched a competition to replace the much-loved but deteriorated Penny Franklin sculpture that stood next to the Engine 8 firehouse in the historic Old City neighborhood (see map). After sifting through many submissions, the council chose James' proposal for a nine-foot bronze bust. Key to its selection was James' desire to make the sculpture more than simply a memorial and a thing of beauty; just like the work it would replace, he said, it should be a touchstone for the surrounding community.
So in 2005 and 2006, James visited 24 nearby elementary schools to talk to students about Franklin. He asked the pupils to bring old keys from home — and they responded by filling buckets with more than 1,000. Casts of the keys were incorporated into the surface of the piece. Many more schools participated in a penny drive organized by the city's fire department, donating 1.8 million pennies — some $18,000 — toward the project. The pennies and keys will allow a generation of Philly kids to point to the sculpture and say, "I helped make that!"
The sculpture also honors the city's firefighters. On July 7, 2007, representatives of the Philadelphia city government and the Philadelphia and Chester, Pa., fire departments gathered at Laran Bronze in Chester for the first pouring of molten bronze for the sculpture. During the casting, several firefighters cast brass nameplates of fallen colleagues into the metal. Also added were several pennies collected for the Penny Franklin sculpture in 1971. Said Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers, "To cement the bond between the Philadelphia Fire Department and this magnificent piece of art for all time, we have brass plates from the fallen firefighter's memorial. Representing fallen firefighters from the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, they are melted into the bronze casting. They will be a part of the statue forever, so we are really proud of this."
The land upon which the sculpture sits is suffused with history. It is located one block east of Franklin's gravesite, where visitors still place pennies on his tombstone. It is one block west of Betsy Ross' house, and three blocks northeast of Independence Hall. In the 1750s, the ground was occupied by the city's largest building: the Philadelphia Academy, which Franklin helped establish and which grew to become the University of Philadelphia. (It was also Franklin's idea to hang the city's first fire-alarm bell in the school's belfry.) The lot later housed commercial and residential buildings. Today it holds a firehouse, home to Engine 8, a descendant of America's first fire department: the Union Fire Company, founded in 1736 by Franklin and his friends. The sculpture overlooks the gate to the 0.15-acre Girard Fountain Park, which is maintained by the Fire Department. The Firemen's Hall Museum, which also helped raise funds for the sculpture, is working to rehabiliate the fountain that stands below the sculpture.
James at work on the original clay sculpture at his West Philadelphia studio in October 2006. (Photo copyright 2006 Jacques-Jean Tiziou.)
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