Almost five years after controversy flared over the ignoring of George Washington's old slave quarters on Independence Mall, a designer for a memorial to those slaves and to the presidential house they lived in was announced yesterday.
Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners of Philadelphia, selected by city and National Park Service officials — with substantial community and academic input — will now break ground this summer on the $5.2 million President's House memorial. An extensive archaeological examination of the site will first be performed.
When completed, probably next year, the memorial will constitute the first national commemoration of slaves.
Kelly/Maiello was chosen from a group of five finalists for the project. The firm, over the years, has been involved with aspects of several big-ticket projects in the region, including the expansion of the central branch of the Free Library, expansion of the Convention Center, construction of the Criminal Justice Center, and restoration of City Hall and Family Court.
Their design, which outlines the house at the southeast corner of Sixth and Market Streets where slave owner Washington and anti-slavery John Adams lived and conducted their presidencies in the 1790s, utilizes audiovisual elements to tell the stories and re-create the environment of those who lived there, including the enslaved Africans and other servants.
The house outlines will be punctuated with allusions to architectural elements, such as chimneys and cornices, rising from a low wall defining the site, and the site of the slave quarters is demarcated by a transparent glass cube — at the entrance to the Liberty Bell Center.
"We didn't get here in the usual kind of way — this wasn't exactly a tea party," Mayor Street said at a news conference yesterday at the Independence Visitor Center. "To say that people have a very strong emotional feeling about this would be the understatement of the decade."
The discussion of the site, the commemoration, the funding, the designers — virtually every aspect of the project — has been punctuated by acrimony.
Alluding to the cacophony of voices raised over the slave-quarter commemoration process, Street said simply, "People were passionate about it."
The controversy broke out at the beginning of 2002 when The Inquirer reported that the entrance to the proposed Liberty Bell Center, then unbuilt, would compel visitors to walk directly over the unmarked spot where Washington's human chattel labored and slept.
There were no park service plans at the time to acknowledge the presence of Washington's slaves, now thought to number nine: Oney Judge, Moll, Austin, Hercules, Richmond, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels and Joe. All spent some time in the house. Hercules, Washington's fabled chef, and Oney Judge, Martha's personal maid, both were able to escape bondage.
In the summer of 2002, as the controversy boiled, the appropriations committee of the U.S. House of Representatives directed the park service "to appropriately commemorate" the slaves and the house they lived in, known as the President's House.
That congressional mandate led the park service to initiate a design process for commemoration. The controversy also inspired park service officials to reconfigure exhibitions in the new Liberty Bell Center to emphasize struggles against slavery and for women's right to vote, among other things.
The first fruit of the slavery and President's House design process, presented to the public in 2003, was greeted with derision, however.
Park service officials withdrew the plan and eventually brought more residents and historians into the effort to come up with a workable and effective memorial.
This led to yesterday's selection of Kelly/Maiello, officials said.
About $1.5 million of the project cost will be provided by the city; the federal government is kicking in $3.6 million, according to U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Phila.), a key member of the appropriations committee, and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Phila.), both of whom attended yesterday's announcement.
Fattah said the memorial would end silence over one of the nation's inherent contradictions: the presence of slavery at the very birthplace of the free democratic republic.
"You can't have reconciliation without truth," Fattah said. "Now that will be illustrated in an important way."
Michael Coard, an attorney and organizer of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, a grassroots community group that has pushed the park service to acknowledge Washington's slaves and their stories, said yesterday that past acrimony represented "water under the bridge."
"If I designed it myself, I couldn't have done it better," Coard said. "But we are still going to be watching them until the final brick is laid."
The Kelly/Maiello design marks out rooms of the President's House — the dining room, the state dining room, the servants' hall, for example — and uses each room to suggest the life of the house and its residents.
The principal vehicles for recounting stories will be audio and LED video screen dramatizations. Professional historians, writers and actors will be employed in the project.
"The stories and the dialogues are really the unifying principle," Emanuel Kelly said. "You will begin to imagine you are standing in the room inhabited by Washington, Hercules, Oney Judge. The experience will be what you hear and see and it will be left to the visitor to put it all together in his or her own mind."