Slow Build

Hopefully, the President’s House is set to open—much to the relief of the locals involved.

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Narberth contractor Pierce Keating at the site of the President’s House in Center City.A decade’s worth of discussion, activism, advances and retreats could ease next month if the planned President’s House and Slave Memorial opens without any further hitches on Independence Mall in Philadelphia. The sparring has centered on properly recognizing the nine enslaved African-Americans who, history has since learned, George Washington brought from Mount Vernon after his election as president and kept in Philadelphia as he was helping define democratic freedom.

In response, the National Park Service and City of Philadelphia have come up with plans for a commemorative outdoor installation on the footprint of the President’s House, the “White House” from 1790 to 1800 while Philadelphia was the capital of the United States. Slave quarters for Washington’s stable hands were 5 feet from the entrance to the Liberty Bell—a symbol of the abolition movement.

Through architecture, landscaping, imagery and interpretive text, the installation intends to tell the story of the birth of a free nation in the shadows of indefensible slavery. But recognition of the dichotomy hasn’t come easily. The process has been complicated by special-interest groups, politicians, procedures, starts, stops and restarts—and by the thematic paradox itself.

A grand opening was originally scheduled for July, in conjunction with a pledge from President Barack Obama to visit the city to coincide with its celebration of Independence Day. It’s become an annual day of protest over the President’s House controversy, led by the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition and a splinter group, Generations Unlimited, at the Liberty Bell Pavilion.

“There will be a memorial,” says Saint Joseph’s University history professor Randall Miller, who has served with the Ad-Hoc Historians, essentially a lobbyist group that’s met separately, as needed, during the drawn-out project. Among other things, they sat down with the National Park Service and influenced the rewriting of the Liberty Bell script to reflect a “freedom-unfreedom” theme.

Whereas the ATAC has raised community awareness, Generations Unlimited—labeled “the real screamers” by one insider—has made the anger public. Calling the President’s House a “House of Horrors,” they want to see an open indictment of Washington.

“You could argue that all the groups are bringing the project forward into the public place because of the enormous civic engagement,” Miller says. “It’s contested and controversial, but it is certainly consequential. The project probably has consequences that are so important that we can’t even imagine them.”

Still, the main issue remains as obvious to Miller as it does to so many others. “Let’s be honest—race is at the core of it all,” he says. “African Americans are not represented at most of our country’s sacred national sites. This is the first time there’s a real opportunity for representation.”

Previously known as the Robert Morris House, the President’s House was Washington’s executive mansion from 1790 to 1797, and John Adams’ home base from 1797 to 1800. Its surviving walls were demolished to create Independence Mall on Nov. 1, 1951.

Decades later, the federal government decided to move the Liberty Bell from its current site to Sixth and Market streets—and subsequently honored the President’s House. In 2007, Kelly/Maiello, a black-owned Philadelphia design team, was selected as project architect, and archeology began.

The initial site dig proved more interesting than expected, with the discovery of a bow window built for Washington and a hidden servant’s passage. So then-mayor John Street pressed archeologists to (literally) dig deeper.

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