Philadelphia — The face of Independence Mall will be forever changed in less than one year.
The mayor, a couple Congressmen and the National Park Service announced the construction of a new addition to the Independence National Historic Park yesterday.
The President's House will be a permanent installation which will commemorate the home of first U.S. Presidents George Washington and John Adams, as well as the long-obscured story of the slaves that were kept there. It is set to be built practically on the doorstep of the Liberty Bell Center. The milestone construction project will cost the city $1.5 million and the federal government $3.6 million.
Mayoral candidates Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady were headliners of the project when it went through legislation three years ago. A competitive process began in 2005 to select a contractor for the development. The plan will be supervised by an oversight committee comprised of the mayor and several others. Contract applicants were issued a national request for qualifications to become eligible for consideration. It capitulated 21 teams representing more than 100 firms.
Five semi-finalists submitted preliminary conceptual designs for the President's House location. They were on display at the National Constitution Center for months before the oversight committee made its selection. The committee also accepted more than 1,000 comments on recommendations for the design.
The Kelly/Maiello Architects and Planners of Philadelphia were selected to design the President's House, under the direction of Project Director Emanuel Kelly. The installation will roughly replicate the inside of the President's House, including aspects of the kitchen, living room and bedroom quarters. Audio and visual LCD (liquid crystal display) screens will depict images of actors perpetrating George Washington's family and his nine slaves, and the activities of their day-to-day life. The Kelly/Maiello team's design includes incomplete walls and architectural fragments in order to establish a historically-accurate sense of place.
Concern over the ignorance of the untold story of the president's slaves began years back when the city discussed the relocation of the Liberty Bell. During construction of the Liberty Bell Center in 2002, it became clear that enslaved Africans in Washington's house slept on what was to become the threshold of the center. Public outrage erupted when city officials planned to move the Liberty Bell to this location -without any mention of the slaves' existence there.
"To say that people had very strong emotional feelings about this would be the understatement of the decade," Street said. "The thought of doing this installation dredged up the emotions that touched on slavery and its role in this country."
National Historic Park Superintendent Dennis Reidenbach said the project will commence following an archaeological dig, which is set to begin in two to three weeks. He said whatever findings from the site are uncovered will in some way be integrated in the installation.
Street defended the selection process, stating that Kelly/Maiello, a black firm, was not selected because of their race but on merit alone.
"This is not the beginning of the process or the end of the process. This commemoration is so long overdue. We want people to be different after having experienced this memorial," Street said.
Ideas for the undertaking began with people like Michael Coard, an attorney and founding member of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition of Philadelphia. He and others helped agitate the idea and fanned the flames in City Hall.
"It was never our intention to bash George Washington," Coard said. "We know he was a great president, but how can you be a great man when you own human beings?"
"Our vision and concept is grounded in our understanding of the cultural values expressed in the request for qualifications, which are identity, memory, agency, dignity and truth. Each of these opens an avenue of exploration in the project. Along with those, there were six substantive themes — the house, the people who live there, slavery, the government executive branch, the move to freedom, and history lost and found," Kelly said.
Kelly said they will hire local black actors who will be on the scene at the President's House, as well as performers from Philadelphia's "A House with No Walls" theatrical play. The play tells the story of the lives of early African slaves, with Oney Judge as the protagonist.
"You can't have reconciliation without truth," Fattah said, "and now it is going to be illustrated in an important way. The ignorance of these truths has cost our nation much more."
Brady said he was honored to be a facilitator of the attraction, and that it was the right time and the right place to spend the feds' $3.6 million.
An official letter of concurrence from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation came midway through the press conference, which gained cheers.
The Kelly/Maiello team will execute all phases of the project, including architectural design, content development, fabrication and installation.