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Source: Philadelphia City Paper
Date: May 17, 2007
Byline: Bruce Schimmel

Through a Window, Darkly

People are too stunned to be anything but perfectly civil.

I find myself coming up with excuses to revisit that big archaeological dig at Sixth and Market — the former site of the President's House. I keep coming back just as much to see the treasures emerging from the earth as to hear the talk from excited spectators.

"Washington kept slaves here?" a blond girl with a Midwest twang asks no one in particular. "Whoa."

Nearby, teens in blue uniforms from North Philly point excitedly to where the president kept slaves shackled at night.

A young couple from Wisconsin tell their two kids about the slaves who escaped: Hercules, the chef who ran Washington's gigantic kitchen, and who ran away. And Oney Judge, Martha's private maid and favorite slave, who, when caught, refused to return and never did.

The stories being told at the big dig aren't exactly "father of the country and defender of liberty" stuff. But people here seem too enthralled by the facts in the ground to take offense. Visitors are too stunned by the real thing to be anything but perfectly civil to one another.

Since April, archaeologists have gingerly peeled back the centuries. Jed Levin, of the National Park Service, hadn't expected to find much. The earth had been too badly mashed during previous construction.

But in early May, Levin hit a trifecta. From the ground emerged the foundation of a kitchen wall; a second "mystery wall" that no one knew existed; and a third, major surprise that everyone knew about but no one expected to find. Levin had unearthed the very foundations of Washington's legendary panoramic window.

Even by modern standards, Washington's window was humongous — measuring some 25 feet from side to side. Built for the new president, this vast expanse of glass replaced the entire back wall of the nation's first official stateroom — wrapping around it like a Cinerama screen.

Against this backdrop, Washington negotiated with foreign diplomats, squabbled with legislators and shook hands with thousands of citizens, who'd line up weekly to meet him.

Even from the observation platform today, two stories up, the window's massive foundations look like Neolithic earthwork. And by good luck, the visitors' platform is just a few feet away, at about the same height where Washington would have stood.

From there, you can imagine what the new nation envisioned for itself.

Levin says it's hard to be certain, but looking out the great window, south to the horizon, Washington would see the clock tower that still tops Independence Hall. A symbol of liberty, a metaphor for the new nation's aspirations? Hard to say. Still, Washington built that big window to impress, and at the time, that building was among the tallest in the country.

From a distance, Washington's window framed a soaring symbol; up close, his guests enjoyed an intimate courtyard, bordered by two walls. To his left, the courtyard was hemmed by the wall of the newly discovered kitchen foundation. Along the back, it was enclosed by that "mystery wall."

One archaeologist at the dig, Cheryl LaRoche, is very interested in those two courtyard walls — not for what they revealed, but for what they hid. Because behind those walls, some less-than-lovely features of 18th-century life might have been carefully blocked from public view. Back then, visitors would not have seen the slaves working behind the kitchen wall. Nor would they have seen their nighttime prisons, which could have been blocked by that mysterious wall along the back.

These are the things America walled away even then. And they've remained buried till now.

Still, despite this ugly history, the crowd on the platform is as friendly as a Fourth of July parade. Only without the flag-waving and the chest-thumping. Quieter. More respectful. Because this big pit, full of treasure and mystery, has made this place sacred. And sacred places bring out the humanity in people.

Officially, for now, everything here is scheduled to be reinterred by June. However, rumor has it that architects, historians and politicians are rushing to keep up with the facts coming out of the ground. So with a bit more luck, part of this window on history may stay open somewhat longer. And the civil conversation that it's inspired can continue.

 

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