Background Information on the Presidents' House and the Liberty Bell Center
Independence National Historical Park (INHP) is currently building a new home for the Liberty Bell, a major component of the ambitious plans to transform the three blocks of Independence Mall. Visitors will approach the new building from the north by way of an outdoor area interpreting and commemorating the site of the property that was once at 190 High Street, used by Presidents Washington and Adams when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital. After entering the building from beneath a sheltered outdoor gathering area, they can view the building’s exhibits, displayed on the following web pages. Finally, visitors will see the Bell itself in its own space, positioned against a large window offering an oblique view of Independence Hall silhouetted against the sky. Visitors will then exit the building to the south, and can proceed from it across Chestnut Street to Independence Hall.
The entrance to the new Liberty Bell Center falls in the immediate vicinity of what was the rear of the Presidents' House, which was used as both a residence and for official functions of the Executive branch of government by Presidents Washington and Adams when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital from 1790-1800. After the beginning of the 19th century, by which time the nation’s capital had been relocated to Washington D.C., the building became a hotel and then was also used for shops until its demolition in 1832.
Washington’s household staff included servants paid wages for service, indentured servants and slaves. Washington did bring enslaved people from his home, Mount Vernon, but usually not more than seven at any one time. Based on historical records, we know that in 1794 the household slaves included: Oney, Molly, Austin, Hercules, Henry, Davy and Bain. Two escaped: in 1796 a young woman named Oney, who was Martha’s maid, and, in 1797 Hercules the cook. Their escape confirmed Washington’s often-expressed concerns about the powerful lure of freedom that would be presented to his slaves from the presence of Philadelphia’s free black population, Pennsylvania’s 1780 Gradual Emancipation Act and the Quaker Abolitionists. Thus most of those who worked for him in his Philadelphia household were white, sometimes indentured, hired straight off the Philadelphia docks.
For many, attention to the presence of this site and the richness of its stories was initially triggered by attention paid to the archeological excavations that were conducted prior to the commencement of construction. Because of our commitment to identify, document and preserve our nation’s cultural resources, the National Park Service (NPS) conducted thorough documentary research and archeological investigations of the affected area before construction. If the investigation finds archeological features that will be damaged or destroyed during the construction process, the NPS fully excavates them. If, on the other hand, the features will not be harmed by the construction, standard archeological practice and NPS policy requires the features and their contents be preserved in place. This allows for preservation of the feature plus the opportunity for excavation by future archeologists with potentially better techniques and technology.
The archeological investigations on the site of the new Liberty Bell Center on Independence Mall included study of what once stood at the back end of the 190 High Street lot. An 18th century plot plan and other historical records indicate that a stable, coach house, kitchen, wash house, housing quarters, and an icehouse once occupied this area behind the main house. President Washington’s correspondence indicates that some of George Washington’s servants and slaves were housed here at the back of the property. Archeological investigation, however, located no items related to distinctive African American cultural practices in this area. Archeologists did find the remains of a circular brick shaft, which is probably a well, and an octagonal stone icehouse pit on the 190 High Street property. Both of these features were investigated by the archeological team. The surviving portion of the icehouse, which was built by Robert Morris c. 1781, represents only the bottom portion of the ice pit. The icehouse is believed to have been used by both Presidents Washington and Adams during their occupation of the house. The well, however, probably post-dates the period when the property served as the presidential residence. The upper portion of this feature contained demolition rubble and artifacts manufactured in the early twentieth century.
The archeological study also included areas under the Liberty Bell Center which lie outside the boundaries of the 190 High Street lot. Most of the 30,000 artifacts and archeological features identified were found to the south of the 190 High Street property site. These items, which are presently being processed and catalogued, tell us about the lives of average Philadelphians living as neighbors to this famous residence.
The archeological team was disappointed to find that so little remained of the rear portion of the Presidents' House. However, the scant remains were not a surprise. It was known prior to the excavation that 18th century buildings in that area were replaced by larger buildings with deep basements in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Moreover, in the 1960s, these 19th century buildings themselves were demolished to construct Independence Mall. The remains that were found (the ice house known to have been used by Washington and Adams and the well that probably was not) have been preserved below ground under the Liberty Bell Center. Stories that "old slave quarters" have been uncovered, or deliberately not excavated, as part of this process, are incorrect.
Recent public interest in the Presidents' House and the Liberty Bell Center has also focused on concerns that the existence of slavery at the site would not be adequately recognized, and that its interpretation would not be adequately interwoven with that of the Liberty Bell. INHP will tell the story of each of these resources — the Liberty Bell and the Presidents' House - primarily at the location of each, while interweaving the stories as and where appropriate.
Toward these ends, the National Park Service has consulted with numerous locally prominent and nationally recognized historians, as well as community representatives. The major initial meeting was on May 13, 2002, at which National Park Service officials met with an interested group of prominent local scholars led by Professor Randall Miller of Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, to explore ways to interpret and interweave the stories of the Presidents' Huse and the Liberty Bell.
That initial meeting with the historians explored themes that would extend throughout the exhibit. It affirmed the exhibit’s overall three-part structure:
- the Bell’s important history as a relic of the American Revolution
- the Bell’s emergence in the middle third of the 19th century as a powerful symbol for the abolition movement, including its enduring connection to efforts to end slavery and subsequently to extend the ideals of Liberty to other disenfranchised groups especially the women’s suffrage and civil rights movements.
- the Bell’s growth as an international symbol of freedom and human rights.
The meeting, and subsequent encounters with a range of historians, further affirmed the necessity to weave two broad themes throughout: the Bell as one of this nation’s "sacred relics", and as a symbol of the ongoing and incomplete struggle to extend the benefits of liberty to all. With these themes, the historians recognized the ongoing relationship between freedom and "unfreedom," as well as the conflict between racism and the ideals of liberty.
These themes were incorporated into a revised exhibit for the Liberty Bell Center. It was reviewed by a group of nationally recognized historians, including Spencer Crew, Executive Director of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center; Fath Ruffin of the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution; James Horton of George Washington University, Eric Foner of Columbia University and Charles Blockson of Temple University. The comments and suggestions of these reviewers have been incorporated into the text and images of the final exhibit, which has been made available to the public on the web. The final exhibit retains the three-part structure summarized above, and presents the Bell as a symbol of an ongoing struggle for liberty rather than as a symbol of liberty attained.
At the same time, the initial planning to appropriately commemorate and interpret the Presidents' House and its occupants is underway. At the site, the National Park Service will interpret several aspects of the house, including its use by two presidents and the people in the household, including slaves owned by George Washington. (A description of interpretive objectives and associated background information has been posted on the web for the public along with the Liberty Bell Center exhibit.) There are no plans to rebuild the Presidents' House. While the National Park Service did reconstruct several buildings at INHP, such as the Declaration House and the City Tavern, during the early 1970s, current policies no longer permit it to do so.
In the summer of 2002, the House Appropriations Committee placed language into the 2003 Interior Appropriations Bill that urges the National Park Service to "appropriately commemorate" the Presidents' House and the slaves who worked there. It is our intention to develop a schematic design for the interpretation of the site through a process that will engage the participation of non-NPS experts and interested parties, and to report back to Congress by the deadline of March 31, 2003. While funding is available to bring our design team into the project, we require funding to make the plan into a reality for our visitors.
The National Park Service has long recognized both the existence of the Presidents' House and the slaves in Washington’s household while he served as president. While this knowledge has ebbed and flowed in the public memory, historians and preservationists are well aware of a century's worth of scholarship on the topic. Indeed, the story of slavery in our nation is a story told throughout Independence National Historical Park. While the stories of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall are part of our heritage and struggle for freedom, we know it is also our task to tell the stories of those who were not free. We will continue to tell that story as accurately as possible throughout the park and at the site of the presidents' House.