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Source: Icon
Date: February 2011
Byline: Thom Nickels

The Last Word

Not only does The President’s House at 5th and Market Streets resemble a half constructed modular home but this skeletal tribute to Washington and Jefferson might also double as a SEPTA subway stop. The structure’s minimalist frame, while pretending to take smart cues from the (nearby) Robert Venturi-designed Franklin House, is a disaster on all fronts. The 10.5 million dollar design tragedy, which incited an eight-year ideological war between the National Park Service and various black community organizations, could have been a success if political squabbling had taken a back seat to architecture.

1949 Photograph of Southeast Corner Sixth and Market Streets: This photograph shows the south side of the 500 block of Market Street in 1949. The surviving eastern wall of the President's House is at center. The “ghost” of the President's House is outlined in red. From the Evening Bulletin Newspaper Collection, Urban Archives, Temple University.

This Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners structure should be laid bare and another architect, like Robert A.M. Stern, brought in to redo the project. Stern, who has designed buildings in the classical tradition for the University of Pennsylvania, is the recent recipient of the 2011 Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture, could at least be counted on to deliver a substantive building that would give Philadelphians and tourists alike a “real” President's House.

The present structure, with its nine open air slave reenactment videos, and grade-school-like “teaching” storyboards fastened on the brick and granite walls, is an intellectual embarrassment. Visitors get quick >Readers Digest-style sound bites about the lives of presidential slaves. That’s pretty much the entire enchilada. Call it the President’s Slaves House, but mixing oil and water like this comes close to false advertising. As it is, the only “President” we get is the down under, glass enclosed archeological dig showcasing the foundations of the real house built sometime between 1790 and 1800 (but demolished in 1833). While the framed “dig” works very well as a centerpiece, everything else on the ground floor -- the representational door, window and fire place frames of the original house -- points to a curious flip flop as the slave narrative dominates and “enslaves” the story of the presidents -- or the evil oppressors in the archeological hole.

It’s not that the important story of slavery in Philadelphia shouldn’t be told. Tell it by all means but don’t superimpose it onto another story. The design-message of the President’s House seems to be nothing but a judgment of 19th century pro-slavery views by “enlightened” 21st century standards. As a result, the visitor leaves knowing nothing about some of the important people that lived in this house, Benedict Arnold and Robert Morris to name only two.

If the mission of the architects was to cast aspersions on the presidents the house is supposed to honor, then they succeeded in equating the guys in wigs with rabid Klu Klux Klaners. But the evangelical zeal with which this message is delivered is like getting hit on the head with a hammer. I’m thinking of those “instructive” billboards, especially the one entitled “The Dirty Business of Slavery,” which seems to be in the running for the Captain Obvious Award.

We don’t need to be reminded like third graders that slavery was “dirty.” And we certainly don’t need to have this message drummed into our heads as if these billboards were stand-ins for teachers with rulers, ready to “smack” us in case we’re not paying attention.

Philadelphia deserves better.


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