Other than the bar that slings cheesesteaks and citywide specials in posh Central London, few British establishments make waves in Philly.
But news of the 2017 shutdown of Whitechapel Bell Foundry was covered across the pond for good reason. It was there that, in 1752, British craftsmen manufactured one of Philadelphia’s most iconic landmarks and a symbol of U.S. independence: the Liberty Bell. (No, they did not cast it with the crack.)
History lovers and cultural romantics, give cheer: The 450-year-old historic foundry may be making a comeback.
A new effort in London is pushing back against a proposed plan to develop the centuries-old site into “a bell-themed boutique hotel.” Advocates are seeking instead to reacquire the site — and maintain it as a full-scale working foundry.
“This proposal has a credible business plan, experienced management and funding available,” argues Save The Whitechapel Bell Foundry on its campaign site. “This speculative and inappropriate change of use for the foundry as proposed by the developer must be rejected.”
The Londoner preservationists have been making headway. More than 20,000 residents in the area have signed a petition opposing the proposed development, according to their website.
There will be a public meeting next week at the East London Mosque next to the foundry to discuss the ongoing efforts.
Advocating against the hotel, British historians and preservationists stress the foundry’s international significance. Its place in London resonates even louder. It’s considered the oldest continually operating manufacturer in the country, whose smelter gave birth to Big Ben. It has even been the subject of poetry.
“Its loss for East London is going to be heartbreaking,” said British art historian Dan Cruickshank in a video for the preservation campaign.
Bellmaking in 2019 = tough business
Under various names, Whitechapel Bell Foundry has been crafting clappers and headstocks into church bells since the Tudor period in the 16th century. But despite bells’ persisting cultural significance, the 21st century has not been kind to the trade.
Alan Hughes’ family had owned the foundry premises, which consists of several houses and workshops, since 1904. Church bells and musical handbells, which made up the bulk of the foundry’s work, were not enough to sustain the business at its current site.
“We have made this decision with a heavy heart, but in response to the changing realities of running a business of this kind,” Hughes told the Guardian during the foundry’s sale in 2017.
The decision to sell will resonate with people familiar with some of Philadelphia’s former manufacturing centers. In recent decades, the Whitechapel district in East London has transformed from a storied industrial quarter to a desirable residential neighborhood, more attractive as a home for tech companies than for noisy factories.
Hughes sold the premise to a developer — who immediately resold it at a huge profit to Raycliff Capital, a New York-based venture capital firm. That outfit is behind the current mixed-use hotel proposal.
Raycliff hired a local architectural firm to design a hotel that incorporates the old foundry aesthetic. The developer has assured proper respects to Whitechapel’s manufacturing history, with exhibitions on the history of the foundry and an allocated space for a small bell-making operation in one of the older buildings.
But the foundry’s champions are not interested in a tourist attraction. London blogger Spitalfields Life argues Raycliff’s preservation plans are superficial, amounting to little more than “a bell-themed boutique hotel.”
In pushing for full restoration for the British labor institution, preservationists also argue the proposed mini foundry is not compatible with the developer’s other proposals.
“The concept of a working foundry on 12% of the original foundry site placed alongside a cafe is simply unworkable and with considerable health and safety risks,” the foundry campaign claims. “Founding bells and brewing coffee in the same area is not sensible and will not happen.”
Foundry preservations take their plan to the local council
Unlike many wishful preservation efforts, this alternative to development has some serious backers.
The United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust and the Factum Foundation, a tech-focused preservation nonprofit, put out a proposal to acquire the foundry site last year.
In June 2018, the two organizations published a 64-page paper titled “Saved by the Bell.” It outlines “a viable and sustainable” economic plan for a modern foundry business at the Whitechapel site.
The pair of organizations are proposing to make emergency repairs and restart bell manufacturing within a year. They say they’ll fund both acquiring and re-equipping the foundry through patronage support and sponsorships.
Phase two will be converting the site for artists and apprentice housing, which will add more diversity to the business model.
“Once the foundry has been saved and operations restarted, Factum-UKHBPT will embark on the second phase to expand the black foundry building to create additional foundry, workshop and education space together with the potential for artisans studios, apprentice accommodation and genuinely affordable housing,” the orgs wrote in their proposal.
Raycliffe, the developer, has submitted a planning application to the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Foundry advocates have petitioned the local council to hold a public hearing about the future of Whitechapel, and hope to galvanize enough support to get the developer’s petition rejected.
The future of the Liberty Bell’s past may be decided on Monday.