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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: February 29, 2012
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

Faulty video screens at President's House being replaced

Blank or malfunctioning video screens, broken and leaking glass — nothing has worked right for long at the Presidentīs House.

More than 14 months after Mayor Nutter opened the President's House memorial as "a living story for us to impart to our children," more often than not those children have been greeted by blank, lifeless video screens.

The glass canopy enclosing archaeological remains of the nation's first executive mansion, where George Washington and John Adams conducted their presidencies and where Washington held nine enslaved Africans, has repeatedly leaked and fogged up.

Atmospheric controls within the enclosure have been tweaked repeatedly as destructive moisture built up within. Video monitors have broken down, remaining blank for months.

Members of the community who fought for the memorial at Sixth and Market Streets have grown increasingly frustrated at the failure of one repair after another.

Now there are plans — being greeted with some skepticism — to make the site fully operational within a matter of weeks, if not days, according to architect Troy Leonard, an associate with Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners, designers of the memorial.

New video monitors are on the way.

The first five units, which carry much of the African American story told there, suffered from excess moisture and lack of ventilation, said Emanuel Kelly, principal of the firm. They overheated and died, and rainwater has seeped through inadequate seals, he said.

Kelly acknowledged that the problem amounted to "a design and manufacturing flaw." In other words, the current monitors, which were specially made for the site by an Australian firm, were a mistake from the beginning.

The new ones, the product of a California company, will be properly ventilated because they will jut out from, rather than being recessed into, brick walls.

And that creates a different problem.

"They are ugly," Mona Washington told Leonard, who spoke on the issue at a recent meeting of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, a group that fought for the memorial. "They look like an air conditioner," she said.

Many of the 75 or so at the meeting voiced agreement.

"We had to provide adequate ventilation," said Leonard. "That's just an unfortunate circumstance."

A test monitor was installed in December and has run without interruption since then. The stock sound system, however, is inadequate and must be replaced. All the new monitors will have sound upgrades, Leonard said, and should be installed in early March.

The $10.5 million President's House project was managed by the city, which eventually will turn it over to Independence National Historical Park. Because of the problems, that hasn't happened yet.

A spokeswoman for the park said officials there were "anxiously awaiting" resolution of the problems before accepting responsibility for the site.

Gary Knappick, deputy commissioner of public property, said that over the last year managers had been "at the mercy of technical problems" at the site. No one, he said, wanted to throw in the towel on the original video monitors until it became abundantly clear that they would not function and that repairs did not sustain them.

"At the end of the day we had to bite the bullet and replace them," he said. "Nobody is really happy. We just want to get it done."

Leonard told community members that the manufacturer of the replacement units would not provide warranty protection if they were recessed into masonry walls, as the initial units had been.

His audience was not pleased to hear that.

"Personally, I don't think they are as ugly as people are making them out to be," Leonard said. "First and foremost, they have to work. It's our neck on the line. We have to make them work and work consistently."

Kelly said that his firm was paying for the replacement monitors; he declined to specify the cost.

Leakage into the archaeological site has been repaired, Kelly said. He deemed the problems "minor." Joints between glass panels have been resealed, and moisture seeping through paving of the site also has been stopped.

Glass fractured by "a rare" manufacturing flaw has been replaced.

Knappick said the climate-control system was "never properly tweaked to function properly." Now, he said, "it's functioning."

Park Service officials remain concerned, and Washington and other members of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition have doubts about all the current fixes.

"I'm tired about hearing about the contractor," Washington said. "I'm furious, and I'm tired of excuses."


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