Today marks the start of the Fourth of July weekend and while beaches, barbecues and fireworks might be the most popular ways to celebrate the occasion, those who are more historically inclined (and happen to be in the Philadelphia area) might want to swing by the Museum of the American Revolution.
Located in the heart of historic Philadelphia, the museum has quite a week of activities planned. Guests can enjoy a “pop-up” 10-minute discussion in the museum’s Declaration of Independence Gallery about the “promise of equality,” or enjoy a live theatrical performance about Elizabeth Freeman, an enslaved woman who sued for her freedom and won.
Visitors can walk through an exhibit of rare American flags and “explore 18th-century Philadelphia through immersive environments, interactive touchscreens, replica objects and special daily programs.”
Open year-round since 2017, the museum is dedicated to educating people about the complex series of events that led to the birth of the United States. It was the first museum in the country dedicated to this mission. And, like so many historical and cultural sites around the country, it was made possible thanks to the leadership, generosity and perseverance of a philanthropist – Gerry Lenfest.
From Troubled Farmhand to Billionaire Businessman
After failing out of school multiple times and a short stint as a farmhand, Gerry Lenfest did not seem a good bet to bank a billion dollars. But he righted his ship in the United States Navy, graduated from Columbia Law School and worked his way into a plum position as in-house counsel for media magnate Walter Annenburg.
Fast forward a few more years, and Gerry Lenfest would cobble together enough funds to purchase a piece of the Annenburg empire. He then bet big on the cable industry and won, ultimately turning his basement business into a conglomerate worth $7 billion – the price Comcast would pay for Lenfest’s cluster of cable networks, at the time the largest in the country.
Lenfest pocketed a robust $1.2 billion from the sale of his company, and following in the footsteps of philanthropists Andrew Carnegie and Julius Rosenwald, Lenfest resolved to give all of his wealth away in his lifetime. The Lenfests (Gerry and his wife, Marguerite), started with higher education and their respective alma maters before shifting focus to marine conservation and cultural organizations.
It was in 2007 that Lenfest began his decade-long quest to launch the first museum in the country dedicated to America’s origin story.
“It’s for a good cause”
The plans for the museum were audacious from the start, a 130,000-square-foot facility and 99-room hotel. Lenfest thought he found the perfect spot for the museum, Valley Forge, and forked over $4.1 million to buy 78 acres of land upon which to build.
“It’s for a good cause,” he said at the time.
The Valley Forge plans were ultimately scuttled by local opposition and zoning issues. Undeterred, Lenfest then set his sites on a plot of land adjacent to the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, right smack dab in downtown Philadelphia, and engineered a complex trade with the National Park Service to acquire the property and rescue the project. A decade after he made his initial land purchase, Lenfest was able to see his hard work come to fruition during the museum’s opening, April 19, 2017.
Lenfest served as chairman of the board for the museum until just before it opened, then as chairman emeritus until his death in 2018. When he passed away, the museum offered a statement acknowledging Lenfest’s critical contributions to building the museum from the ground up.
“The Museum of the American Revolution would not exist if it were not for Gerry. With Gerry as our inspiration, we are determined to carry forward and fulfill his vision for this museum—to preserve the history of the Revolution and inspire rising generations with its meaning and continuing relevance.”
Teaching the values that inspired the American Revolution to young people was Lenfest’s “good cause.” A point he emphasized in a video celebrating the museum’s opening.
“I think the value of this museum to young people is that it will be very important. You know we all take our freedom and independence for granted and we shouldn’t. The values they established in the War for Independence remain important today for our young generations.”
These values – hard work, courage, perseverance, humility and liberty – were very important to Gerry Lenfest throughout his life. They enabled him to build a business, a fortune, a museum and a legacy of giving that will be on full display this Fourth of July in the city where freedom itself was born.
Happy Fourth of July!