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Ad-Hoc Historians on Importance of Documentary Evidence

Ad Hoc Historians react to INHP's July 22, 2009 decision not to abide by documentary and archaeological evidence. See Issues with the Physical Design of the President's House Commemoration Project. These redacted excerpts were forwarded to INHP on July 26, 2009.

"It seems to be the whole lesson of the dig was the power of juxtaposition in a physical sense. Once we mess with that tangible reality, then we've sacrificed much more than accuracy, we've sacrificed the authentic, as far as we can discern it. That's what justified the delay and the additional expense after the dig. And now we're going to say it simply doesn't matter? I find that hard to digest."

"There are lots of problems with this. In essence, you have two coexisting structures and something has to give. My inclination (seemingly radical) is to preserve the thing that is of greatest significance: the President's House in every aspect--even if that means altering the new high tech building. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the historic site is the resource to be prized and shared. Juggling the quarters for the convenience of infrastructure seems ill-advised and certainly not in accord with a mission statement about history. Folks who work on the material history of enslaved Africans and African Americans are pretty much agreed that spatial relations are crucial if there is an intent to interpret how enslaved peoples occupied their environments."

”Wow — moving the slave quarters and making up a “fake” site more conveniently situated seems absolutely the wrong approach to me. This was, I recall, one of the issues on the table back in 2002, when INHP was pressing to stay on the timetable for the LBC [Liberty Bell Center]. To now insist that the slave quarters have to be faked because 7 years ago they didn’t have the wit to stop and deal with the issues raised by the location of the quarters reminds me of the man who murdered his parents and then begs the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan. That ground has been blessed several times in rituals designed to honor both the nine enslaved at the PH [President's House] and the many others unknown, so simply moving the “memorial” to neutral ground would be unthinkably awful. Talk about another betrayal, another trivialization, another lie. I’d be livid.”

I grant that we live in the world. I appreciate the wisdom of [_____] in advising a larger perspective, and I understand the power of [_____]'s reminder that we do want people beyond the minuscule community of historians to get to the President's House and mull on its meaning. Still, I feel a fury that is only exacerbated by my impotence.

My fury stems from the screaming hypocrisy of the Park Service in this latest of its incarnations. From the first, the obvious thing to do — to evoke historical awareness and to promote tourism alike — was to rebuild the President's House and hawk it as the first White House. But no. That could not be done. That could not even be put on the table. NPS was too pure for that. NPS would never falsify or in any other way tamper with history. Except that now it turns out that NPS can and does and will. Locations can be rearranged. Dimensions can be changed. The Americans with Disabilities Act trumps verifiable history, and so do INHP budgetary priorities, widening the sidewalk a convenient foot and a half, complications of constructing the semi-circular exterior, and avoiding a traffic jam at the front door.

It's bad enough that, as I now learn for the first time, the houses that are marked on the 500 block of Market Street are shrunk to 3/4 of their size. [_____] may not see this as an issue as long as the spatial relations are proportionally correct, but I see this as a serious issue. I feel snookered by the Park Service. Size DOES matter. Even on the spot, people get a very different idea of the scale on which people lived in the 18th century. That is a matter of absolute size, not proportional relations. And it matters relationally as well. When I take tours to Elfreth's Alley, I emphasize the small, cramped quarters within which people lived and worked. It is not trivial to allow visitors an authentic sense of the contrasts between Market Street and Elfreth's Alley spaces. More than that, the fact that widening two streets, 5th and 6th, to modern (still rather narrow) dimensions can take away a quarter of the block between would afford visitors a stunning opportunity to imagine how extraordinarily narrow and crowded those streets themselves used to be and how different life was in the walking city.

And that's how much authenticity matters, and how much faking it costs, on something that scarcely matters at all. On the President's House, the stakes are incomparably higher. This is ground sacred to American history and now, as [_____] pointed out, sanctified to African Americans and to many more of us who have attended ceremonies of such sanctification there. This is ground where we've got to get it right, because we've gotten it wrong for four centuries. I can't tell you how offended I am at the cavalier indifference with which the architects and the Park Service worked. The arguments of convenience and cost that have been advanced, and that seem to have prevailed, would be fine for other projects. The adjustments, cut corners, fiddling with dimensions a bit here and a bit there, and switching of this for that are the things that happen routinely in the design of buildings. I resent that THIS building has been treated so routinely. And I resent as much as anything that it has been treated so routinely by the NPS, which professes to be so pure and holy in its custodianship of our heritage, and by architects who have turned out to be architects first and heritage-keepers only after the architectural problems were solved.

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