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Historiography of the President's House, 1832-1995

By Edward Lawler, Jr.

Why had you never heard of the President's House? You never heard of the President's House because most historians themselves know little or nothing about it. The mansion served as the 'White House' for the lion's shares of Washington's and Adams's presidencies, but much of what has been published about the building over the past 150 years has been erroneous. Conflicting opinions in the 19th century over where the house had stood, how large it had been, and what had been its appearance during its tenure as the Executive Mansion caused tremendous confusion. Original documents regarding the house existed — maps, deeds, insurance surveys, first-person accounts — but no one ever put all the pieces together, and successfully separated the fact from the fiction.

president's house
This view by William L. Breton was published in Watson's Annals in 1830. Two years later, the main house was demolished except for its side walls which survived as party walls shared with the adjoining buildings. Three narrow stores, 526-30 Market Street, were built within the same frontage as the main house and upon most of its original foundations.
"When General Washington and Robert Morris, dignitaries of the nation, lived in the houses in High street, east of Sixth street, only little more than thirty years ago, no stores, save Sheaff's wine store, were near them; and probably not an inhabitant could then have been found to guess that that square, and to the westward of it to Broad street, would ever become a street of trade!"
–John Fanning Watson, Annals of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: 1830), p. 205.

Inaccuracies about the house were published as early as the 1830s, but the real tidal wave of misinformation began in the 1850s with a misguided antiquarian named Charles A. Poulson. He was convinced that the President's House had been a 5-bay, symmetrical-fašade Georgian mansion (like Cliveden and Mount Pleasant), and that it had stood at 524-28 Market Street. He also claimed that much of the main house (the store at 524 Market Street, actually built in 1804) was still standing.

Poulson was wrong about the house's size, location, appearance and what was left of it; but he was persistent. He argued his opponents down, and presented intricate "proofs" based on his boyhood recollections, and those of others. His fantastical view of the house was published as an engraving in 1865, along with his spurious theories. Poulson died the following year, but within several decades his erroneous vision was accepted as the most accurate view of the President's House by the general public and even by most historians.

Poulson sketch
The Poulson sketch first appeared in William Brotherhead, ed., Sanderson's Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence (Philadelphia: 1865), p. 337. Forty years later, it was the most frequently published view of the President's House.
It is most unfortunate that the Poulson picture has been so long and so widely publicised, and labelled as the house in which General Washington lived during his Presidency. For years past — and they are still doing it — books, leaflets, advertisements and what not have set forth the Poulson picture as a true representation of Washington's Philadelphia domicile from 1790 to 1797 — which it most certainly is not."
–Harold Donaldson Eberlein, "190, High Street: The Home of Washington and Adams," in Historic Philadelphia, Luther P. Eisenhart, ed., Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, volume 43, part 1. (Philadelphia: 1953), p. 162.

In the 1930s, a team of architects and historians made an extensive study of the President's House under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration. An elaborate scale model of the house was designed and constructed based on the hundreds of pages of research notes the team amassed. (The WPA notes are in the collection of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.) An unstated goal of the project was to call attention to the long-demolished mansion in the hope that money could be raised to build a full-sized re-creation (based on the model) in the national park being proposed for the area surrounding Independence Hall.

Researchers uncovered some of the original documents relating to the house, but those which contradicted the Poulson sketch seem to have been ignored. The WPA model, unveiled after nearly two years of work, was beautiful — exquisitely crafted and thoroughly convincing. Unfortunately, because of the shoddy scholarship behind it, the model was historically worthless.

Charles Abell Murphy and WPA model
More than 40 people worked on the WPA 'Models Project' between 1937 and 1939. Shown above is Charles Abell Murphy, the second project head. The President's House model was displayed in Washington, DC, and then given to the Atwater Kent Museum in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of INHP Archives.
"An extensive documented study of this house was made under the auspices of the Federal Government ... On the basis of the findings of this study a model was later executed which can be seen at the Atwater Kent Museum. While the model portrays the Presidential Mansion as having a symmetrical street elevation, this writer could find no solid basis for that conclusion in the material of the government study."
–Hannah Benner Roach, Historical Report: First Block, Independence Mall (Philadelphia Planning Commission, 1952), p. 23.

The WPA had missed the fact that some of the original walls were still standing in the 1930s, and the incompetence of the project's research and model only increased the confusion about the house. The buildings on the block directly north of Independence Hall were demolished in the early 1950s to create Independence Mall, including the surviving walls of the President's House. Despite the protests of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects, no archeological study was done of the site, and the foundations of the main house were cut down to 4 feet below ground level and reburied. A public restroom was erected where the 'White House' had stood.

Location of the President's House
This 1949 photo shows the surviving 4-story eastern wall and the "ghost" of the main house. Ten years earlier when the WPA made its study, it is likely that the 4-story western wall was also intact. From The Evening Bulletin Collection, Urban Archives, Temple University.
"The site of the Presidential mansion is hardly surpassed in importance by any other historical site in America. Investigation indicates that a portion of the original foundations of the Presidential Mansion remains intact under the 19th Century buildings that now occupy the site. The eminent personages who lived here and the decisions affecting the future of the nation that were made here have caused growing interest in the Presidential Mansion and the ground upon which it once stood. It is a distinguished historical site."
Final Report to the United States Congress by the Philadelphia National Shrines Park Commission, (Philadelphia: 1947), v. 1, p. 269. This report became the basis for the Congressional legislation under which Independence National Historical Park was created.

The confusion over the President's House led to its surviving walls not being recognized for what they were, and resulted in their 1951 demolition. To give an idea of just how much confusion there was, let's try to answer something as simple as "where did the house stand?" Some of the choices:

Correct Location:

Incorrect Locations:

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