Party Prep

America turns 250 in nine years. A couple of local visionaries want to plan a party worthy of its age

It’s a ritzy affair at Philadelphia’s African American Museum. The movers and shakers are present. There are enough Penn graduates in attendance to fill a few fraternity reunion parties. And the big guns are in attendance—Mayor Kenney, and at least three U.S. representatives are in the building, two of whom—Patrick Meehan and Brendan Boyle—deliver remarks about the cheery bipartisanship of their mission. This party is a fundraiser for USA250, an organization that seeks to make sure that Philly’s semiquincentennial event in 2026 is the nation’s premier event—and that the party makes up for this city’s oft-maligned anniversary fiascos.

Let’s flash back to Philadelphia in January 1976: The Sixers are dominating the Atlantic division, the city is expecting 100 million visitors during the year-long bicentennial birthday party to take place in the City of Brotherly Love, major urban infrastructure projects are underway and everything seems groovy. Now let’s flash forward to Philadelphia in September 1976: Several of those major urban infrastructure projects are starting to look like expensive boondoggles, Mayor Rizzo has called the National Guard to counter protests, the city under-draws visitors to the tune of 50 million people and Legionnaires Disease makes its first appearance in the U.S. when it kills 30 of the city’s visitors who were staying in the Bellevue Stratford Hotel.

On top of it all, the Sixers lose to the Blazers in six games in the NBA Finals.

It was a historic mess, and it wasn’t even the first pileup of a birthday party for the nation that Philadelphia had held—the sesquicentennial exposition, held in Philadelphia in 1926, was functionally a rainout. USA250 Executive Director Jon Grabelle Hermann and co-founder/chairman Andrew Hohns know that they have a lot to make up for.

USA250, according Hohns, has been kicking around since 2008, at first just as a discussion among like-minded friends at bars and barbecues. Hohns, who helped create Young Involved Philadelphia, is a civic organizer from grade school and a sucker for patriotism. He says that eight years ago, he saw an opportunity to fold YIP’s growing intellectual resources into an anniversary planning committee that had not yet been founded, and was in dire need of creation. And if a gap of two decades between the initial planning for the event and the actual event seems huge, it’s not really. Philadelphia started planning for the 1976 bicentennial event in the early 60’s and, for the 1926 anniversary, 10 years early. Hohns is modest about his role in planning the event, though.

“It’s not so much my idea as it is the idea of many generations of Philadelphians,” he says. “Starting in 1876 with the centennial and carrying forward with the tradition of these milestone events.”

“You could imagine major museum exhibits, major concerts, major historical exhibits, major academic conferences and professional conferences,” says USA250 co-founder Andrew Hohns. “All of these things together in the nation’s birthplace, celebrating the 250th anniversary, creating a real feeling of patriotism.”

Hermann, a Penn graduate, is from North Jersey, but says he fell in love with Philadelphia during his time in undergrad, and became the founder of Campus Philly, an organization that tries to keep young college graduates in Philadelphia. “I’ve always had this sort of ‘promoting-Philly’ piece of my career, it’s always been kind of part of my direction,” he says.

Hermann is well-versed in the history of centennial celebrations in Philadelphia, capable of running down the pitfalls that each of the events encountered. The 1926 event, he says, suffered from too much parochial planning; and the 1976 one was woefully underfunded by the federal government. What’s more, he says the 1976 event was plotted almost exclusively by white men—an African-American committee actually formed to challenge the lack of diversity on the planning board—leading to a dearth of ideas and disparate voices within the planning process. Hermann and company are determined to dodge the mistakes of national anniversaries past.

They seem to be off to a promising start. In 2016, Congress passed the United States Semiquincentennial Act of 2016, which establishes a commission to help supervise and direct events and activities for the anniversary. The commission features a slew of Pennsylvania legislators who seem bonzer about the event and who will hold meetings on the party at Independence Hall. Their aim is to develop a program for the national celebration of the semiquincentennial, and to help organize anniversary programs in areas around the country. The act does not allocate any funds for the semiquincentennial. Instead, USA250 does its own fundraising; since incorporating in 2011, the group has raised roughly $400,000.

And already, the semiquincentennial event in Philadelphia is a more inclusive affair: The November 21st fundraiser included representatives from groups ranging from the Daughters of the American Revolution to the James Beard Foundation to the African American History Museum. USA250 itself includes committees that are taking a specialized look at the potential proceedings. There’s a Generation250 committee that is particularly focused on bringing young, diverse professionals into the planning of the event; there’s a History250 and Ideas250 portion of USA250’s website that explores the history of national anniversaries in Philadelphia, and ideas for the direction that the 2026 event should head in.

“The Bicentennial was an event everyone was talking about, and a lot of people ended up being cut out,” says Hermann. “It all goes back to coalition building—we need to build a coalition of all Americans. We need to make all kinds of folks excited.”

Philadelphia: The Great Experiment clip discussing the bicentennial celebration

Hermann believes that the 2026 event will need to adopt a less top-heavy format than the previous anniversary events held in Philadelphia. Those, he says, were staked around massive infrastructure installations. For example, the 1926 sesquicentennial in Philadelphia—unpopular with the Philly citizenry from the get-go—relied on several expensive development projects in the south of the city, several of which weren’t completed until halfway through the World’s Fair, which served as the focal point of the celebration. The 1976 event, similarly, resulted in tens of millions of dollars worth of restoration and construction spending, which was considered by many to be something of a bath after the event was under-attended.

Hermann does say, however, that plenty of important public enhancements did stem from anniversary events in Philadelphia, such as Municipal Stadium in 1926 and the African-American History Museum in 1976, and while USA250 is looking to avoid backing massive infrastructure projects, it won’t forsake any new development. But the semiquincentennial celebration will need to be lighter and quicker on its feet.

While Hermann and USA250 seem to have a grasp on what they need to avoid doing, they don’t have that much of a grasp on what events, projects or construction efforts the semiquincentennial event will actually include. Hermann pitched a few ideas, ranging from an international food truck festival to a showcase for the wares and sundries of all 50 states, but considering that the event is roughly a decade away, USA250 can’t really commit to anything just yet.

Hohns says that he’s hoping for a number of major events around Philly in 2026, including perhaps the MLB All-Star game.

“The focus of the semiquincentennial should be on Philadelphia,” says USA250 board member Carol de Fries. “Philadelphia is the birthplace of our nation; we really have to show to the world what that means.”

“But it’s not just sports of course,” Hohns says. “In the same exact lens, you could imagine major museum exhibits, major concerts, major historical exhibits,major academic conferences and professional conferences. All of these things together in the nation’s birthplace, celebrating the 250th anniversary, creating a real feeling of patriotism.”

Hohns, like Hermann, is specifics-light and ambitions-heavy when it comes to discussing the anniversary, but he does imagine that the semiquincentennial event will endeavor to generate fewer major construction and infrastructure projects and feature a major digital component—perhaps one that can’t even be actualized with today’s technology.

“The semiquincentennial is going to be the first major milestone for America in the age of the internet, and that has a ton of implications,” says Hohns. “Some of which are obvious, and some of which have hardly been imagined. When you think about the ability to augment reality with virtual reality, GPS location and instant translation, there’s a rich possibility for celebration in a digital context that doesn’t require the same kind of in-person-ness.”

Meanwhile, the folks at the fundraiser seem damned excited. Mayor Kenney says that while he knows he won’t be running the show by the time of the event, he hopes he’s around to see it; Representative Boyle, in his remarks, says that he’s been thinking about the possibility of such an event for way longer than USA250. The place is brimming with good vibes, in a time when good vibes seem scarce.

“The focus of the semiquincentennial should be on Philadelphia,” says USA250 board member Carol de Fries. “Philadelphia is the birthplace of our nation; we really have to show to the world what that means.”

Fourth of July activity is shown in Philadelphia on Saturday, July 4, 2009. (© 2009 George Widman Photography LLC, Licensed for use by Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.)

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