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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: June 17, 2007
Byline: Editorial

The President's House Dig

Legends more fully revealed

The most remarkable discovery at the archaeological dig of the President's House in Philadelphia may not be what's found in the excavation itself, but in the awakening of ideas among thousands of visitors viewing the work with fascination.

As the foundations have been unearthed at Sixth and Market Streets, where the Robert Morris house once served two American presidents, the little-known story of the father of our country as a slave owner has been revealed.

No doubt, this is the first time many visitors who mount the small wooden platform that overlooks archaeologists at work have learned that President George Washington quartered nine household slaves at the site.

Volunteer guides like archaeological consultant Patrice L. Jeppson note the irony. As she told one midday gathering, "The institution of slavery and the presidency lived under the same roof."

That revelation invariably quiets onlookers, as it did two dozen-plus students from the Khepera Charter School in Mount Airy, who surveyed the dig with Jeppson last week.

The students' escort on a field trip to the historic area happened to be Cheyney University professor Shirley T. Parham, a historian and one of many activists instrumental in persuading the National Park Service and city to create a fitting memorial to Washington's slaves.

Thanks to such activism, visitors to Independence Mall will be told a richer, if more edgy, story of the nation's earliest years.

The excavation is a prelude to building a $5.2 million memorial created by Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners of Philadelphia. The architects' distinctive design not only will show the architectural outlines of the house, but also depict the lives of slaves and president alike in audio and video.

When Mayor Street, who jump-started what had been a stalled project, put the first ceremonial shovel in the ground in March, the Kelly/Maiello design was ready to go. Now it's clear the design will have to be revised to take into account the archaeology.

It's not just that the dig has revealed prized, and surprising, findings such as the foundation and basement of the house kitchen and an underground passageway likely used by slaves. What's also driving a redesign is the public's obvious embrace of the dig and fascination with the story it tells.

From the vantage point of visitors on the viewing platform, the redesign should leave at least a portion of the excavation on view. Determining how that's done, what it will cost, and who pays is the challenge for city and Park Service officials.

Like visitors to the dig, officials have decided, wisely, to give the President's House a fresh look.


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