Walking down Market Street, a visiting relative asked Ed Lawler Jr. where the president had lived when Philadelphia was the nation's capital.
And Lawler was ashamed to say he didn't really know.
That was long before he learned that the newborn nation formally celebrated the Fourth of July with a huge garden party at George Washington's house.
He didn't know that Washington quartered slaves there. Nor did he know that movers and shakers tore most of the building down 170 years ago, or that an ignorant city and state finished the job in the 1950s when they created Independence Mall.
Perhaps most astonishing of all, no one else really knew any of this either.
But they do now, thanks to the bulldog effort of this hyper-inquisitive amateur scholar/sleuth who found the innocent question as irritating as a pebble stuck in a shoe.
Because of Lawler's detective work and the issues it has raised, the National Park Service is amplifying its exhibitions and discussions of slavery throughout Independence National Historical Park and reconsidering how to acknowledge and memorialize the nation's first "White House."
"He was amazingly self-motivated and dogged in tackling a subject that everyone thought had been figured out," said Jeffrey A. Cohen, an architectural historian who teaches at Bryn Mawr College and counseled and encouraged Lawler along the way. "He pushed and pushed and pushed until people realized they hadn't figured it out at all."
For Lawler, 43, a professional singer who can belt out an Irish drinking song as easily as he can deliver a scholarly lecture, the President's House story became a kind of bibliophilic fatal attraction.
It would lead him to the Philadelphia City Archives, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the library of the American Philosophical Society, the bowels of the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Bryn Mawr College library, the Library of Congress, and document warrens at many other institutions.
He pored over handwritten records hundreds of years old, painstakingly deciphering each scrawled word. He scrutinized drawings and maps. He looked at tax rolls, census data, and real estate and insurance descriptions. He tracked down diaries, journals and letters.
"Out of embarrassment," allowed Lawler, a burly man with a full-throated laugh and friendly manner. "I pride myself in knowing a lot about Philadelphia and Philadelphia architecture, and in August of '96, some relatives of mine came to Philadelphia, and I was giving them a tour of the historical area, and they knew about the Declaration of Independence and they knew about the Constitution.
The national capital
"But they had forgotten that Philadelphia had been the national capital from 1790 to 1800. So I showed them Congress Hall where the legislative branch met, Old City Hall where the judicial branch met, and then the question was, 'Well, where was the White House?' And I wasn't sure. And it bothered me that I wasn't sure, because it seemed to me something very important."
So it began.
Initially, Lawler looked at 19th- and 20th-century city histories and quickly discovered something curious. Some writers said the President's House stood at the southeast corner of Sixth and Market Streets. Some said it stood at the center of the block between Fifth and Sixth Streets.
Some said the house had a four-bay front. Some said the front had five bays. Some said the house started with five bays and was rebuilt with four after a fire. Some said the opposite.
Everyone agreed that financier Robert Morris owned the house in the 10 years from 1790 to 1800, when Washington and then President John Adams lived there. But no one seemed to know exactly when the house was built or when Morris lived there.
Confusion reigned, although every differing opinion was offered with unflagging certitude.
Early on, Lawler located the Morris deed in the city archives. But he hit real pay dirt in the Library of Congress when he found a copy of a 1785 deed to the property with a drawing of the ground plan.
House plans from 1781
The drawing showed the plan of the house in 1781, when Morris purchased it from Richard Penn, grandson of William Penn and former governor of Pennsylvania. Morris rebuilt parts of the building that had been destroyed in a 1780 fire. He lived in the house intermittently in the 1780s.
"I found that in September of '98 at the Library of Congress," Lawler recalled. 'And my thought was: 'My God, this is real important.' So I immediately took it to Independence Park and a historian there, Anna Coxe Toogood. She had found the original in the [Pennsylvania] state archives that same summer. So we bonded - being the only two people who knew anything about the house and seemed to care about the house."
Toogood had been taking notes on the house for about 20 years. She turned over her material to a grateful Lawler.
Lawler also knew that prudent 18th-century Philadelphians were almost certain to insure their buildings. Rooting through antique records of the Philadelphia Contributionship, he found a precise insurance description of the house from 1773, which established that it always had featured a four-bay front.
The survey contained detailed and vivid descriptions of the interior with its "wainscut rails and balisters Mahogony" and its "Stair Case & entery wainscut pedistal high, 2 fluted Culloms, 4 pillasters, 4 arches, 4 pediments, modilion Cornish."
Lawler not only established the location and dimensions of the house (at what would now be 524-530 Market St.), but he also resurrected its inhabitants.
Before Washington moved in, Benedict Arnold lived there, hatching his treasonous plots; before Arnold, Gen. Sir William Howe, commander of the British army during the Revolutionary War, headquartered in the house.
When Washington occupied the building with his household staff of 30, including eight slaves, he did extensive rebuilding, adding servant and slave quarters at the rear - near the entrance to the Liberty Bell Center now under construction.
Washington also added a semicircular bow window at the south end of the first floor, which is widely seen as the forerunner of the Oval Office.
Washington initiated the formal Independence Day festivities in his courtyard and garden. After cannons fired at Eighth and Market Streets, veterans of the war solemnly marched through the house, trailing their muskets behind them in honor of their fallen comrades.
In 1830, long after the U.S. capital had moved to Washington, merchant Nathaniel Burt had the house demolished and new commercial buildings erected in its place. Nevertheless, the entire eastern wall of the President's House, a portion of the western wall, and part of the foundation survived.
A century later, officials of the Works Progress Administration hoped the house might be rebuilt, but failed to recognize its still-standing walls.
When Independence Mall was created, those walls were demolished and a women's bathroom was erected on the site.
"There are dozens of people who have looked at the house, and all those books written in the late 19th and early 20th century, and everyone thought they had it right, everyone went 'Eureka!' - without having gone back and really proved it," said Lawler, whose research was published in the January 2002 issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.
"If someone had done that... and if the WPA done its job, the house would still be here."
Now the Park Service is mulling what to do. Lawler is lobbying to have the house outlined on the ground.
"So much in terms of tradition began in this place," Lawler said simply. "I think it should be remembered."