So much cheese

How a fondue restaurant in Delaware ended up with its very own Liberty Bell.

This month at the Melting Pot in Wilmington, Delaware, you can celebrate Choctober-Fest with a four-course meal for $44.95 per person.

You’ll start by dipping hunks of bread into bubbling cauldrons of cheese. Next comes salad, which you don’t dip into anything. For the main course, you’ll submerge your choice of raw meat into boiling oil until it’s cooked to your desired level of doneness. You’ll cap off your evening by dipping all sorts of dessert items into roiling pots of chocolate. 

You can have the same one-of-a-kind interactive dining experience at any of the 103 Melting Pot franchise locations around the country, with one big exception.

At the Melting Pot in Wilmington, the main attraction isn’t getting to cook your own food, it’s the full-size Liberty Bell sitting inexplicably in the lobby. The bell’s presence becomes more explicable as you step outside to see the Melting Pot occupies a faithful recreation of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.

The Melting Pot Liberty Bell replica, Independence Mall, Wilmington, Delaware
The Melting Pot Liberty Bell replica, Wilmington, Delaware (cast in 1965)

Delaware’s Independence Hall is the centerpiece of Independence Mall, a 25-store, U-shaped shopping center on Concord Pike in the Brandywine Hundred section of North Wilmington.

Christened on October 25th, 1965, during the golden age of American shopping malls, Independence Mall was the brainchild of Emilio Capaldi. The real estate developer and history buff sought to buck the trend of malls as flat and functional modernist monoliths. A newspaper ad from the Capaldi company described his vision as “a radical departure from the current shopping center trend,” offering, “Old World warmth with contemporary functional facility.”

Before breaking ground, Capaldi and his team spend months in Philadelphia studying the historic buildings of Old City. To be more faithful recreations of the originals, Capaldi plans two-story units with retail businesses at street level and offices above.

The Liberty Bell replica has been part of the plan from the beginning. In fact, the Independence Hall replica will be built around it.

Independence Mall construction was delayed until the Liberty Bell could be installed

Capaldi claims his mall’s 109-foot tower will be the highest point in the state, once completed. By June, the north wing is completed, along with the steel frame for his centerpiece.

Most Liberty Bell replicas in the United States stand as silent symbols that rarely toll. Capaldi’s bell will be the exception. It will ring daily at 9:00 am, noon and 5:00 pm. Every Independence Day it will toll for four minutes straight.

Capaldi’s tower design includes interior stairways and ladderways to the belfry so visitors can view the Liberty Bell up close.

The bell was cast at the McShane Bell Foundry in Baltimore, Maryland. Before making the 56-mile journey north, the city threw a party in celebration of local industry, with the Liberty Bell as the guest of honor. Upon arriving in Delaware, it was displayed at Greater Wilmington Airport (now Newcastle Airport) as part of their Operation Firecracker event.

Committed to making his roadside shopping mall as historically significant as possible, Capaldi doesn’t stop at replicating Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Nestled among the gift shoppes and boutiques are recreations of the Betsy Ross House, Letitia Penn House, Philosophical Hall, Library Hall and Carpenter’s Hall.

The mall opens to much fanfare, winning over even the most highfalutin of critics. Author and art historian John D. Morse reviews the mall for the December 22nd issue of the Wilmington News Journal.

Morse’s instinct is to dismiss the place entirely. “Like everyone trained in an art museum, I am bound to look askance at reproductions of any kind.” He critiques the mall’s U-shaped layout as, “a misunderstood imitation of the 20th century International Style … achieved perhaps in its first full expression in the United Nations Building.”

But after spending some time shopping with his wife, the art critic becomes an ardent fan. Of Capaldi’s Independence Hall, he notes it “dominates the mall to just the right degree. As I looked at it, melodious chimes in the tall tower struck five o’clock above the voices of busy shoppers and the shouts of children. It all amounted to an esthetic experience. And at a shopping center! I forgave its phoniness, then and there.”

Independence Mall, Wilmington, Delaware
A picture postcard describes the stores of Independence Mall as being “recreated from golden moments of the past to implement and serve the present.”

While Philadelphia’s history was being celebrated with the latest in contemporary consumer convenience, a piece of Delaware’s history was quietly crumbling just a few yards from the new mall with its Old World charm.

If Morse or any of the other shoppers had decided to go exploring beyond the bounds of the new mall, they might have discovered a small building hidden in plain sight by a dense thicket.

Vandals have long since destroyed the windows and doors. The roof leaks when it rains. If they can find it, those without a home can rest here for a night or two. In spite of the building’s condition, the 18-inch Brandywine granite walls still provide shelter from the elements.

This old building is the ruins of Lombardy Hall, one of the oldest structures in the state. It’s older than Delaware, older than the United States. Built around 1750, it’s a contemporary of the original buildings so faithfully recreated next door. In 1785, the 28 x 30-foot farmhouse and 250 surrounding acres were purchased by Gunning Bedford Junior. He and his wife Jane Ballareau Bedford moved into the estate in 1793. The Bedfords put an 18 x 30-foot addition on the home’s south end.

Gunning Bedford Jr., the most bad-ass of history’s ten Gunnings Bedford

Gunning Bedford Junior is one of ten related men to have borne that name, seven of which were alive at the same time. GBJ, as I like to call him, is not to be confused with Gunning Bedford Senior — not his father, but his cousin — who served as Delaware’s 11th governor.

During the American Revolutionary War, GBJ was appointed Muster-Master-General by George Washington. He was appointed as Delaware’s first Attorney General in 1784 and served in the Continental Congress from 1783 to 1786.

In 1789, his former commander in chief, now president, appointed Bedford as the first judge on the U.S. District Court for Delaware. He served the court until his death in 1812.

A staunch abolitionist, ardent federalist and Grand Master Mason, Bedford had a knack for picking history’s winning teams.

If you’ve ever wondered why Wyoming’s 572,381 residents get the same representation in the Senate as 39.7 million Californians, you have GBJ to thank.

Bedford carried an intimidating physical girth to match his sharp debating skills. Before the 1787 Constitutional Convention, he joined his colleagues from Connecticut to make a case for smaller states to have equal representation in the second body of Congress — indelicately threatening that small states might need to seek help from other countries, “The small ones would find some foreign ally of more honor and good faith, who will take them by the hand and do them justice.”

While other delegates shouted down his argument as treasonous, it was nonetheless effective. The Great Compromise was ratified by a 5-4 margin, awarding two senators to every state, large and small.

Lombardy Hall remained in the family until 1847. Portions of the property were sold off over time, reducing the estate’s acreage from 250 to 20. In 1889, part of the land became Lombardy Cemetery. The caretaker moved into Bedford’s home, and one room was used as a morgue. The building was abandoned in 1962 and entered a period of rapid decline until Independence Mall moved in next door.

In 1967, Granite Masonic Lodge no. 34 purchased the estate and undertook an extensive renovation of Lombardy Hall. The new owners extended the addition by 20 feet. Now called Granite Corinthian Masonic Lodge #34, the building is believed to be the only Masonic lodge housed in the former home of a Grand Master Mason.

The lodge’s most intriguing feature hangs from a small ribbon — one of Gunning Bedford Junior’s teeth, which fell out of his skull in 1921, during the second of his body’s three burials.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPQtzlYXQbg

While the building is preserved for future generations, it remains a little-known piece of American history, easily missed by the thousands of cars that whizz past it each day on Concord Pike.

At Independence Mall, now in its sixth decade, you can still book a trip to Italy or take dance lessons or buy the latest in tween fashion. Emilio Capaldi died in 2006. The shopping center is now owned and operated by his daughter, Roseanna Richards.

Richards oversaw a renovation to bring 21st-century amenities to the mall while preserving her father’s original vision.

The Liberty Bell moved from the belfry to the lobby of the Melting Pot. While it might seem an odd place for such a relic, owner Jeff Nichols sees the bell as perfectly on-brand. “Turn it upside down and it’s really a fondue pot.”

What would Gunning Bedford Junior think if he could visit his homestead today? While he might want his tooth back, he’d otherwise surely be delighted to see his home so faithfully preserved by fellow Masons.

He’d probably be a bit puzzled to see his former place of work, the old Pennsylvania State House (later renamed Independence Hall) in his backyard.

I think he’d wander into the Melting Pot, dig into Choctober-Fest, and recount his best congressional arguments for his fellow patrons.

Someone would inevitably tell him about California and Wyoming or Texas and Alaska. GBJ would nod intently, look down at his bubbling cauldron of cheese and feel pretty good about himself.

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