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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: June 3, 2007
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

Should President's House findings stay on view? Should memorial proceed?

It was a last-minute addition, almost an afterthought.

But against virtually all expectations, the archaeological excavation of the President's House, now more than two months running, has uncovered powerful physical evidence evoking presidents and slaves, eliciting excitement and deep interest from the thousands who have packed the public observation platform to view the site at Sixth and Market Streets.

In response, the city and Independence National Historical Park have extended the dig through July Fourth. It had been expected to wrap up about now.

"We want to take advantage of all the interest," said Joyce Wilkerson, Mayor Street's chief of staff.

"This is a national story," directly related to July Fourth, she added.

At the same time, the city and park face an extraordinary conundrum: what to do next.

Should the dig and its findings simply be filled in and the long-awaited memorial to the President's House and its residents proceed as planned? The house was where George Washington and John Adams created the presidency in the 1790s. And it was where Washington quartered at least nine slaves as he helped launch modern democracy.

Or should the findings — which include Washington's great bow window and the foundations of the kitchen and an underground passageway, the subterranean world of slaves — somehow remain accessible, open to view?

What U.S. Rep. Bob Brady saw Friday when he visited unannounced, almost anonymously, left him nearly speechless.

"I was completely shocked," he said in an interview later in the day. "I never thought anything like this would be there. I looked at it, and there was the oval window and the passageway. How can you cover that up?"

"I'll tell you one thing," he continued. "We need to stop and rethink what we're doing there. . . . Damn! I got chills."

The city and the park, partners in the project, are discussing the matter, officials said. And every option is on the table, Wilkerson emphasized, noting that decisions should be made in a matter of weeks.

"We're asking all the questions," she said. "None of us has the answers yet. None of us anticipated the findings. I think when you stand and look down at the archaeologists working, it's hard not to be drawn in."

The first question, she added, is what is generating the excitement: "Is it the hole? Is it the excitement of the discovery? Is it the opportunity people are having to see archaeologists at work?"

For visitors, all those issues may come into play. But what is heard over and over on the viewing platform as blacks and whites, Philadelphians and out-of-towners gaze down at the network of walls and stones are expressions of awe:

This is the actual foundation of the curved bow window that was the antecedent to the oval rooms and ultimately the Oval Office in the White House. This is where Washington stood to greet dignitaries and the public.

Steps away are remains of the actual room where slaves, including Washington's renowned chef, Hercules, labored — hidden from those upstairs.

"It's the real deal," one visitor said in a typical comment: democracy and America, the good, the bad and the ugly.

Wilkerson said an oversight committee appointed by Street to keep tabs on the project will meet again Tuesday to talk.

"We're trying to figure out how to get the issues framed with enough information so that the decisions can be made about how we proceed from here," she said. "What does it mean to keep [the excavation] open? Just keep it open? Or do you keep it open and preserve it in some way, protect it? What does protect it mean? Can you incorporate it into a design? What does that mean to the competition that we had that was pursuant to a public process?

"We're just examining all those issues. We haven't made any final decisions. There's not a single opinion. On the oversight committee, not everybody feels the same way."

Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners, which won the design competition to create the commemoration, did not foresee incorporating archaeological findings into a memorial. Nor did any of the other bidders for the $4.5 million project.

Emmanuel Kelly, principal of the Philadelphia design firm, said last week that "everyone agrees that what has been discovered is very valuable."

He declined comment beyond that, except that "we're waiting to be given some direction" by the city and the National Park Service.

Several participants at a meeting about 10 days ago said Kelly had argued that incorporating archaeological findings would add substantially to the cost of the memorial.

Because the exposed foundations are about 10 feet below the street, for instance, moving visitors to that level might prove expensive. Elevators and ramps were mentioned at the meeting.

And once visitors were down there, what would they do? The site is small, hardly the Roman Forum.

And if the foundations were left exposed to the elements, they would crumble quickly. Not because the stone is soft, but because the mortar holding it together incorporates earth and would dissolve.

Despite that, "there's a strong belief among . . . historians involved from the beginning that the archaeological findings need to be taken into account" in the design, said Charlene Mires, associate professor of history at Villanova University and a member of the project's oversight committee.

"What we don't know," she said, "is what that means in practical terms. I recognize there are challenges. What I haven't heard are some researched possibilities of how we might take advantage of what we've found. I've heard reasons why it's going to be difficult, but I haven't heard an analysis of possibilities."

Some members of the oversight committee are concerned that excessive focus on the archaeological findings will detract from the stories of the people who lived in the house, particularly the long-hidden stories of the slaves.

There is also a concern that redesigning the memorial would take too long.

Dennis Reidenbach, superintendent of the park, said the main concern for the park service was finding the best means to "interpret" the site.

The President's House represents "one of the most important stories the park service can tell," he said.

"The question is whether keeping the archaeology exposed adds to the story. At the end, what this is about is communicating stories, experiencing the site, and hearing the stories communicated by the site. Will the archaeology add to that?"

That said, Reidenbach added that "I think there is general agreement that the archaeology needs to be incorporated in the interpretation. How to do it is up in the air."

Reidenbach and Wilkerson said a decision must be made in the next month or so.

Money is an issue. The city has committed more than $1.5 million to the project. The federal government has added $3.5 million. The dig, not included in the memorial budget, has proved expensive.

"I don't have any more money that I can lay my hands on in the short term," Wilkerson said. "I think it would be appropriate for some of these foundations to step forward. We will probably be reaching out and finding out: Are there others who might want to participate?

"But I think before you even have that conversation, you have to know what you're talking about. You're talking about keeping it open and putting up walls and creating the appropriate environment and having some kind of transparent surface over at least part of it for people to look at. What's the order of magnitude in terms of cost? We've got work to do in order to figure that out."

Brady, who said he planned to return to the site with his grandchildren, said he would work at the federal level to free up more money for the project if it was needed.

In the meantime, he said, "we need to stop and look at what they're finding and at what we're doing."

 

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