Return to Home PageThe President's House

In the News index

Source: The Diamondback (Univ. of Maryland)
Date: June 21, 2007
Byline: Kelly Wilson

The First White House

Cheryl LaRoche

In the middle of an archaeological dig at the center of Philadelphia, alumna and now university researcher Cheryl LaRoche points out the foundation of an 18th century bay window. It is, she says, the precursor of the now-famous Oval Office.

Not far from Independence Hall, the archaeological footprint of the original presidential mansion is being unearthed by LaRoche and fellow researchers with the Independence National Historical Park so the city of Philadelphia can use it as an educational site for visitors. Until 1800, Philadelphia — not Washington — was the capital of the United States and the home of both George Washington and John Adams during all and part of their presidencies, respectively. In its original form, the mansion did not include a bay window, but Washington requested one be added to distinguish the home as that of the president.

His request was granted, and the design of the window was later retained when the White House was built in Washington. LaRoche, an archeologist and cultural heritage specialist for the project, said the relationship between the archaeological foundation and the current White House makes the site particularly interesting.

"The footprint of the house is, for us, the most exciting thing," LaRoche said.

But there is more to the design of the presidential mansion than just windows.

Archeologists at the site recently uncovered a passageway linking the mansion to the area where the kitchens once stood. The new discovery has lent new significance to both the physical impression left behind by the house and the mark the building has left on American history.

According to LaRoche, who is charged with interpreting the findings of the site for the public, the discovery of the passageway illustrates the need to reconsider centuries of history, particularly the presentation of historical icons like Washington as role models for Americans.

For years, LaRoche has worked in various sites north of the Mason-Dixon Line, where many of the large properties were originally slated as manor houses. However, she and other researchers have found convincing evidence that they were at one time slave owning plantations.

According to LaRoche's research, Washington not only kept a staff of enslaved servants at the presidential mansion in Philadelphia, he circumvented the law of the commonwealth to do so.

At the time of Washington's presidency, Pennsylvania had a law in place that limited the time a person could remain enslaved to six months. LaRoche has found that Washington had a practice at this time of taking his servants outside the state just before the expiration of that six-month time period and then bringing them back. The practice effectively "restarted the clock" on the time limit, LaRoche said. This allowed the Washingtons to maintain favorite slaves like cook Hercules and Martha Washington's personal servant, Ona, indefinitely.

LaRoche believes it is details such as these that dictate the way our society thinks about history. For her, their absence in the public's perception of Washington solidifies the importance of the findings at the former mansion. By uncovering forgotten details like the passageway, she says researchers are helping to paint a more accurate picture of history.

"This has been an exciting opportunity, working with the president's house," LaRoche says.

The archaeological site is part of a new exhibit in the Independence National Historical Park, which already includes Independence Hall and other locations famous in American history. The original plan called for the excavation area to be filled back in once researchers had completed their work, but LaRoche said Philadelphia residents have recently begun a push to keep the actual foundations visible.

The exhibit plan must also be revised to include the discovery of the passageway, LaRoche said, and she expects the plans to face more revisions in the future before a final design is decided upon.

Following the study of the presidential mansion, which has been extended into July, LaRoche hopes to participate in various other projects — ranging from a study of African-American meeting houses in Boston to an effort to save houses in Brooklyn believed to be part of the Underground Railroad from eminent domain threats — before returning to this university to teach in the fall in the American studies department.


Return to Start Page | In the News index

historic documents, declaration, constitution, more