Mayor Street believes the construction of the new Liberty Bell pavilion should continue despite a historian's discovery that its entrance sits atop the site where George Washington's slaves were housed during his presidency in Philadelphia, according to administration spokesman Frank Keel.
Keel said he spoke by telephone yesterday with a National Park Service official about the information and came away confident the site would be properly commemorated.
"We've already begun a dialogue with the Park Service. The city is interested in finding a way to make certain that this legacy, this important piece of history, doesn't get neglected or forgotten," Keel said. "We're all on the same page."
Park Service spokesman Phil Sheridan agreed. "We reached out to the mayor just to say, 'Hey, we're here.' " The question, he added, "is how do we incorporate the story of slavery" into the story of the President's House?
But several historians interviewed yesterday cautioned that it was too early to give the project a green light. They argued that the Park Service has not adequately explored the site for archaeological remains and risks losing a valuable trove of material.
"I think future generations are going to be pretty upset if they knew we just covered up the site and put up a plaque," said Henry Weincek, a Virginia-based historian who is writing a biography of Washington as a slave owner.
The issue surfaced a few weeks ago after Edward Lawler Jr. published the first authoritative history of the Market Street house that Washington occupied from 1790 to 1797. In reconstructing the floor plan, Lawler, an independent scholar, found that Washington brought his slaves to Philadelphia and housed them at what was then the nation's White House.
Lawler said in an interview yesterday that he first informed the Park Service of his findings almost a year ago. Nevertheless, the architects, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, continued to work on their design, and last week the Park Service broke ground.
As the design now stands, visitors will have to step across the site of slave quarters to enter the building, an irony since the pavilion is dedicated to freedom. The beloved Philadelphia bell became a national icon after it was adopted as the symbol of the antislavery movement before the Civil War.
It's not just the Philadelphia President's House that is tainted by an association with slavery. Although the practice was nominally outlawed in Pennsylvania in 1780, many continued to profit from the trade in human property. Charlene Mires, a Villanova University historian, discovered recently that a courtroom in Independence Hall was used to try runaway slaves as late as 1854.
Such discoveries come as a shock, Mires noted, because most people view Independence Hall as a symbol of one of America's noblest periods. "But these issues of slavery and freedom run throughout Independence Mall," Mires said. "It doesn't diminish the story to address them."
For the most part, the Park Service has not shied away from the subject of slavery. David Hollenberg, a Park Service architect, said that an exhibition on slavery is planned for the new bell pavilion and there will be an extensive discussion of the dark stain on America's past at the nearby National Constitution Center, under construction at the mall's north end.
Yet a contingent of Philadelphia historians is worried the Park Service will underplay the main story of the Philadelphia White House. Lawler, along with members of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, argues that the park needs to find a high-visibility way to commemorate the house's role in the United States' early development.
Even now it is not well-known that Philadelphia was the U.S. capital from 1790 to 1800 and the most important city in the young republic. When Washington rode into Philadelphia to begin his presidency, financier Robert Morris offered to rent him a house on Market Street to use as home and office.
During the first years of the country's existence, when it seemed that Britain or France might undo the new nation's democratic experiment, George Washington conducted all the affairs of state from the four-story house at the corner of Sixth and Market, which was then called High Street. When John Adams became president, he took up residency there and remained until 1800, when he moved to the executive mansion in what is now Washington, D.C.
The genteel neighborhood where the Philadelphia executive mansion stood soon became a bustling commercial district. Since there was little historical consciousness in those days, the house was sold to a boarding house operator who altered the residence. It was partially demolished in 1832.
Some exterior walls still remained in 1951, when Philadelphia began work on Independence Mall. Declaring that the new mall would help preserve Philadelphia's revolutionary past, the city then proceeded to demolish the last visible portions of the Philadelphia White House. The city then erected a public toilet on the site.
Now some feel that the city is about to lose the house all over again.
Nancy Gilboy, president of the Independence Hall Association, a volunteer group that has become a watchdog for the mall, wants the Park Service to commemorate the house by marking the outline of its floorplan in the mall's pavement. That would also preserve the memory of both the house and the slave quarters.
"There's room to move the pavilion back 20 feet," toward Sixth Street, she argued, leaving the floor plan of the Philadelphia White House visible for posterity. "It's not impossible," Gilboy said.