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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: May 25, 2007
Byline: Inga Saffron

Let's not throw dirt on the city's history

Through ignorance, apathy and neglect, Philadelphia has demolished most of the house in which George Washington and John Adams learned to run the world's first modern democracy. Now, we're on the verge of obliterating from view the little that remains of the storied mansion where the Father of Our Country both nurtured a nation and enslaved nine individuals.

Is there any other country in the world so eager to bury the physical evidence of its birth?

All that survives of the President's House at Sixth and Market Streets are its 18th-century foundations, discovered during an archaeological dig that began in March. Once the old stones yield their secrets, they are meant to be preserved with dirt, and a memorial built above.

But no human hand can craft a better tribute to the first decade of the American presidency, or the nation's congenital defect of slavery, than those humble bricks, smoothed by time and the weight of the earth.

So why bother? Let the foundation stones testify to history. Keep them visible.

Most of the President's House was demolished in 1832 — before our young nation developed a consciousness about its past — to build commercial buildings. There was less excuse for razing the surviving side walls in 1951 to make room for a planned Independence Mall restroom. Today, we know far too much to justify landfilling the past yet again.

It's been five years since a Philadelphia historian published his startling findings about the President's House, and nothing has gripped the public imagination more than the current excavations. The house's form has emerged over recent days like the details of a photograph in a developing bath: Here's the floor of the kitchen in which Washington's enslaved African chef, Hercules, toiled. Over there is the outline of the curving neoclassical window that inspired the White House's Blue Room and Oval Office.

The crowds, which start arriving at 9 a.m., lean deeply into the observation deck erected by the National Park Service. They wait for history to be revealed as if it were the latest installment of American Idol.

What was that wall over there, visitors ask lead archaeologist Jed Levin. Where was Washington's office? Where did his slaves sleep? The archaeologist's chisel has become a time machine. With every new brick unearthed, the past gains tangible form.

Even the most effective memorials are secondhand experiences. Which would you rather visit: the real Independence Hall, where the Constitution was written, or the reconstituted Graff House, where the Declaration of Independence was penned?

Fortunately, there is time to plan a course correction for the President's House site. Although the city and the park service agreed in February on a $5.1 million memorial designed by Philadelphia's Kelly/Maiello architects, the success of the excavations has delayed the project's start. The archaeologists need another three to six weeks to complete their work. The city can use that window of opportunity to explore alternatives.

It would be ideal if the house foundations could be left exposed and the public allowed to wander among the ruins, as they do at Rome's Forum. But those soft colonial bricks would crumble in Philadelphia's climate. The challenge is to figure out how to encapsulate the outline of a large townhouse and its outbuildings.

Some want the architects to install windows in the floor of the planned memorial, so visitors can peer down at key sections of the foundation. But because the low brick walls would be 10 feet below, it would be hard to see them. More significantly, it would be difficult to appreciate the meaning of the house from fragments alone.

That's because the President's House is a repository of multiple conflicting stories. It's where Washington and Adams worked out how to be citizen-leaders, rather than kings, from 1790 to 1800, when Philadelphia was the nation's capital.

But America's first citizen-president, as we have learned, could also act above the law. From the room with the sunny bay window, where Washington received his constituents as equals, one could glimpse a high wall. It shielded the cramped slave quarters — and the fact that Washington violated a Pennsylvania law entitling enslaved Africans to freedom after a six-month residency. We need to see the house whole to understand the contradictory workings of his household.

The committee overseeing the memorial remains divided on the issue. "It would be a crime and a sin to bury this," argued member Michael Coard. But another member, Karen Warrington, fears it's simply too late, too difficult, and too costly to salvage that historical panorama. If the Kelly/Maiello design is scrapped, Warrington said, it could be years before Philadelphia completes the memorial. And that assumes the city can raise the money for a new version.

She's right that it's a daunting challenge, one that will require a professional fund-raiser. But too often Philadelphia prefers to get something done, rather than get it done right. It's why the city is stuck with the useless concrete tram towers at Penn's Landing, and why it is barreling ahead with a banal design for its South Street gateway.

Preserving the foundation pit would give the city a chance to improve on the Kelly/Maiello design. Although it was the best of five finalists, the design has many flaws. It adds yet another kitsch-laden historicist brick structure to the single-minded Sixth Street parade. It also turns a largely blank face to the city on the corner. It's hard to believe the city undertook such an important architectural competition without a design consultant.

One thing should be clear: The city needn't give up the worthy goal of erecting a memorial to slavery. There's plenty of open space to the east of the President's House, along Market Street.

Of course, the park service will insist on maintaining the open vista down the mall's midsection, so here's one option: submerge the new structure slightly below grade, similar to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and the 9/11 tribute in New York. The metaphorical possibilities of a sunken slavery memorial are enormous. Plus, the structure could ramp down and connect to the preserved President's House foundations.

Expensive? No doubt. But there are any number of ways to come to terms with the past. And the best keep what's real, real.

 

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