In 1790, when the capital temporarily relocated to Philadelphia, financier Robert Morris offered his home to President Washington. The chief executive, who regarded the property as “the best single house in the City,” gladly accepted.
During the following decade, Washington, and then John Adams, conducted the fledgling nation’s business, and established the traditions of the presidency, in Morris’s mansion near the corner of Sixth and Market Streets. After the federal government moved to its new capital city on a swampy patch of land by the Potomac River in 1800, the house passed through the hands of various owners before being demolished in 1832—and subsequently lost to memory. Today, however, almost two centuries after it was reduced to rubble, the Philadelphia White House—or a vague approximation of it—has been resurrected.
Officially unveiled in December, the President’s House partially reconstructs the building’s skeleton in an effort to chronicle life in the first executive mansion. But the saga behind the reconstruction—a battle over whom and what to honor—is a story unto itself, one that offers a cautionary lesson for those who attempt to see the past through the politicized lens of the present.
The project, originally scheduled to open in 2006, is the culmination of a nearly decade-long debate ignited by the discovery of the architectural footprint of the house in 2002. Historians had a vague idea of its location, but the exact whereabouts were unclear until archaeological excavations in preparation for the construction of a new facility to house the Liberty Bell (and extensive independent research by historian Edward Lawler) revealed that the entrance to the proposed Liberty Bell Center abutted the back of the original structure. This revelation revved up local interest in the house and its former residents who, in addition to Washington and Adams, also included Richard Penn, the British general William Howe, Benedict Arnold, and crucially, given the fact that the Liberty Bell’s new home would touch the site of their quarters, Washington’s slaves.
Originally, the National Park Service—which oversees Independence National Historic Park, the acreage that encompasses most of the remaining buildings central to the founding—had only minimal plans to mark the site. But under intense pressure from Philadelphia activists, including the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition—an organization describing itself as “descendents of the victims of the greatest holocaust in the history of humankind,” led by Michael Coard, an attorney who has represented the celebrated cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal—Philadelphia congressman Chaka Fattah shepherded legislation through Congress mandating that the Park Service create a plan to interpret the President’s House and its inhabitants. The Park Service then began the process of determining what aspects of the site’s history to emphasize.
That’s when all hell broke loose.
“I always felt the controversial and difficult part of the process would be striking the appropriate balance between the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams and slavery,” says Lawler, the historian whose research constitutes most of what is known about the house.
His hunch was right. The preliminary vision for the site, which included Washington’s slaves but failed to acknowledge the juxtaposition of the site of their quarters with the present location of the Liberty Bell, was unveiled during a contentious public meeting in 2003 and met with angry opposition. That particular plan was abandoned, but Congress approved $3.6 million for the project, and Philadelphia and the Delaware River Port Authority soon joined in as partners and pitched in millions more.
A trail of reworked designs, loud demonstrations, angry public meetings, and delayed opening dates followed. Always at the heart of the debate was the issue of what role slavery would play relative to the presidency of the United States. And constantly hovering around the argument was the politics of race. The reaction to the final draft of the project, introduced during a public forum in early 2010, was typical: Attendees objected to the use of a white-owned construction company to build the monument, and rejected the plan as too light on slavery and too soft on George Washington. As documented by the Philadelphia Inquirer, one resident discarded the term President’s House and, instead, labeled it “a house of horror.”
“Where is the rape? Where is the brutality?” asked another.
Of course, not all interested parties believed that the monument’s potential downfall was the lack of emphasis on slavery. Rob Morris, a descendant of the man who lent the house to Washington, accused planners of trying to “confuse George Washington with Bull Connor. . . . They are fanning race hatred. This is not about my ancestor, but about teaching people to hate each other for things they can do nothing about.”
Amid these competing interests, and after many delays, Philadelphia and the Park Service finally cut the ribbon on the monument in December. The final cost was $11.2 million. And in the end, which vision triumphed?
Although not exclusively about slavery, Philadelphia’s “President’s House” has little to do with the presidency. Instead of a full reproduction of the structure—as would have been done in, say, Colonial Williamsburg—the finished product is a mishmash that partially reconstructs pieces of the walls, complete with unframed windows to alternatively give visitors the impression of a partially completed house or an abstract piece of contemporary art sitting uncomfortably in the shadow of Independence Hall.
Inside the open space are video presentations and interpretive panels focusing generally on slavery during the founding of the nation, and particularly on the lives of Washington’s slaves. When the narrative strays from this particular subject it remains fixated on race and class.
Philadelphia and the Park Service were correct to underline the tension between the Founders’ vision of liberty and the broken promise of slavery. But the exclusivity of their approach neglects much of the home’s rich history, and almost entirely crowds out its other occupants. Missing completely are the stories of Penn, the colonial lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania; Howe, who set up office here when the British occupied Philadelphia during 1777-78; Arnold, who hatched his treasonous plot within these very walls; and Morris, whose own wealth clothed and fed Washington’s army during the darkest days of the Revolution. And little is mentioned of Adams, who opposed slavery, or his wife, Abigail, who was a vocal abolitionist.
All of this might have made for a three-dimensional recounting of the story of the President’s House. Instead, visitors are left with a myopic interpretation of an important fragment of American history. George Washington, who in keeping slaves in Philadelphia flouted Pennsylvania law, is seen not as the father of his country but a law-breaking bondsman. The subtle but essential point that he was a man of his times who wrestled with the hypocrisy of slavery is nowhere to be seen.
Additionally, the interpretation of the house is arguably incongruent with Congress’s original mandate, which does not mention the creation of a slavery monument.
“If Congress had intended the National Park Service to create a National Slavery Memorial, I think they would have explicitly said so,” says Lawler, who, during the public debate, argued that the final product should be a presidential site with a strong slavery component. Instead, the site is a slavery memorial with a minute presidential component. Rosalyn McPherson, who managed the project for the city and Independence National Historical Park, defends the focus: “There was not much space to convey a story, but many demands,” she said. “Everything gets honorable mention, but you can’t go in depth in a site like this.”
Of course, there are many stories here. And the focus on slavery, and the insistence on superimposing current views on centuries-old history, squander a rare opportunity to chronicle the creation of the executive branch and the lives of a host of figures central to the beginnings of the United States of America.
Ryan L. Cole is a writer in Indianapolis.