For better or worse, America is a country with a short memory. Until historian Edward Lawler Jr. began to look at old deeds, no one could remember the exact location of Philadelphia's "White House," where the United States' first two presidents struggled to keep our young nation intact during its tumultuous first decade.
We didn't lose track of this important house just once. By Lawler's count, we suffered amnesia about the Presidents' House on at least three separate occasions over the last 200 years. And now we are in danger of minimizing its memory once again.
Writing in the current issue of The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Lawler confirms that the site of the house happens to be next to the spot where the new Liberty Bell pavilion is going up on Independence Mall. Lawler, whose work was reviewed by a board of prominent historians before it was published, informed the National Park Service about his findings more than a year ago. But because the park service had already formalized an elaborate plan for renovating the mall, the last thing it wanted to hear about was the existence of another historic site.
Under pressure from Lawler and others, the park service has now agreed to erect a sign that will tell of the four-story, Georgian-style house where George Washington and John Adams conducted the affairs of state between 1790 and 1800. That's an improvement over the small plaque marking the site now, but the spot where the nation's existence was secured requires something more: It needs a physical presence.
Would the Park Service make do with a sign on the site where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution written? Where the battle of Yorktown was fought?
The U.S. would not exist today, at least in its present form, without Washington's heroic stewardship, conducted from a nice, but not grand, townhouse at Sixth and Market Streets. From that house, Washington managed to hold the nation together at a time when Britain and France were actively challenging its right to exist, when the states were bickering over debts left over from the American Revolution, and when the country's western frontier was in open rebellion over a new federal tax on whiskey.
Despite the role the house played, no one viewed it with any special sentiment after Adams left for the new capital in 1800. In fact, it was soon converted to a boarding house. Americans in those days took pride in their lack of history; that was how we distinguished ourselves from Europeans, with their ancient feuds. But because of that casual attitude toward the past, people quickly forgot who had once lived on Market Street.
By 1951, when Independence Mall was created, the memory of the house was so thoroughly obscured that the state tore down the surviving walls without understanding their value. Though the house is lost forever, and further excavation wouldn't uncover much, the details resurrected by Lawler provide a precious reminder of Philadelphia's moment in the sun, as the country's intellectual and political center.
That past now means a lot to the city, both spiritually and economically. The information Lawler has unearthed should be used to create a dramatic memorial.
Some have argued for a complete reconstruction of the Presidents' House, similar to the Graff House at Seventh and Market Streets, where Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence. They note that a good deal of Washington's furniture from the house, including the bed in which he later died, is still around, mainly on view at Mount Vernon in Virginia.
But the world is a different place than it was in 1975, when the Graff House was rebuilt from photographs. Historians now believe literal attempts at reconstruction can distort history as much as doing nothing obscures it. Rebuilding the house would take years and cost money that could be used to improve the mall. Adding a full building would also doom the new bell pavilion, where work began earlier this month.
The park service could inexpensively commemorate the house without complicating - or even moving - the pavilion project. By outlining the floor plan of the Presidents' House on the ground, as Lawler and others have suggested, the park service would accomplish the goal of making the house a real, dramatic presence. The pavement markers would ensure that no one would overlook its existence again.
In doing his research, Lawler was able to assemble an accurate floor plan of the 45-foot-wide house. He also determined that Washington kept slaves at the Philadelphia White House, and that the location of their sleeping quarters spanned the threshold of the new Liberty Bell Pavilion.
What better illustration of America's contradictions could there be than this unintended juxtaposition - the emblems of liberty and bondage side by side? The park service is planning to include exhibits on slavery in the pavilion. But it's one thing to discuss slavery generically, and quite another to pinpoint the spot where it occurred.
The park service has been quick to shoot down the floor-plan idea. It says it would confuse visitors because part of the outline would run through the pavilion. But the architects, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, are planning to do much the same thing for another purpose. They are running a curved pavement stripe from the corner of Sixth Street into the pavilion to guide visitors to the bell.
What's more, the park service is already planning to mark the property lines of all the colonial houses that once lined the mall by setting 16-foot-long markers in the pavement. Just extend those markers for the Presidents' House.
There is ample precedent for the idea. The park service used the same approach for commemorating the house where Washington was born in Virginia. It's not even a new idea for Philadelphia. The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects recommended a floor-plan outline in 1952, when the city and state were busy obliterating Philadelphia's postcolonial history to create the mall. Beyond marking the Presidents' House, the floor plan would show the competing layers of history embedded in the mall.
Quite a few people have argued in recent letters that the Presidents' House and slavery are so far in our past that they should no longer be dredged up, and that they interfere with the story of the Liberty Bell.
Perhaps the good thing about being a country with a short memory is that it has allowed us to keep moving on, putting the tragedies of strife and slavery behind us. But there's a danger in forgetting, too. After all, only by understanding our past can we know what kind of nation we hope to become.