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Source: Skyline Online
Date: May 9, 2007
Byline: Inga Saffron

The Best Way to Remember the President's House? Keep the Real Thing.

The more I read about the discoveries at the President's House site, the more I'm starting to think that the best memorial to the creation of the office of the American presidency are the house foundations themselves. Every day, archaeologists uncover more detailed remains of the original building, owned by Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris and rented to George Washington, and later John Adams when Philadelphia was the capital of the U.S. In today's Inquirer Stephan Salisbury reports that historians have now conclusively identified the curved, bow window in the room that George Washington used to receive constituents and discuss policy with his advisers. It's believed that the shape of the room, which housed the president's office from 1790 to 1800, inspired the design for the oval office in today's White House.

The ongoing excavations, unfortunately, are meant only to be a prelude to the construction of a permanent memorial, above, designed by Kelly/Maiello. The firm was named the designer after a long and contentious competition. Since Edward Lawler and other historians pointed out that Washington kept slaves in his presidential residence, that sensational and emotionally charged story has tended to overshadow the more abstract and cerebral one about the birth of the world's first democratic presidency. During the architectural competition, it was evident that all five firms were having trouble reconciling the two very different stories in one memorial. Kelly/Maiello captured the duality of the two stories best, but their memorial design is far from perfect. It's too cluttered, too dependent on literal architectural imagery and too reliant on video screens, which are sure to break down. On top of that, the pillars housing the video screens will present a very dull, blank wall to the corner of Sixth and Market Streets.

There's no doubt that this country and this city need a memorial recognizing the tragedy of slavery. Independence Mall is a good place for it, too. But perhaps it should be a different kind of memorial, devoted exclusively to acknowledging the stain of slavery on American history. Its message would be clearer and, very likely, so would the architecture. If the President's House foundations were preserved and kept visible, a more permanent viewing platform could be erected. If your aim is to preserve history's memory, nothing beats being about to see the real thing.


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