As construction of the President's House memorial is poised to begin, sharp criticisms have been leveled at the architectural design, catching officials by surprise and focusing attention on purportedly historically inaccurate elements of the project.
The house's dimensions are incorrect, the arc of a bow window is distorted, and the building's now-infamous slave quarters are incorrectly located, the critics assert.
Some historians and members of a committee charged with reviewing the memorial's design and content say they are stunned by the vehemence of the complaints. Beyond that, they argue that the memorial — which it is hoped will open next July Fourth — is less about architectural detail and more about the difficult story of enslavement at the heart of the new nation.
And the architect says the current plan conforms to the house dimensions contained in various 18th-century plans and revealed in a 2007 archaeological excavation that exposed some foundations.
Edward Lawler Jr., an independent historian whose original research into the President's House focused attention on the Independence Mall site at Sixth and Market Streets in 2002, says inaccurate design changes have been made "in secrecy" and will undermine the authenticity of the commemoration.
"There have been many changes in the physical design," he said last week. "They are violating the documentary evidence, changing the dimensions of the building, changing things that the archaeology of two years ago proved to be true. . . . What bothers me the most is that the changes were made secretly. If they were made out in the open, we could fix it."
Rosalyn McPherson, who is managing the $8.5 million project for the city, said nothing had been done secretly. She said the memorial was never intended to be a precise reconstruction of the house where George Washington and John Adams conducted their presidencies in the 1790s and where Washington housed at least nine enslaved Africans.
"People are not trying to hide things. There's been a lot of openness," she said. "Everything that gets done gets done with people sitting around a table."
Emanuel Kelly, principal of Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners, designer of the memorial, said he was "flabbergasted" by the vehemence of the criticism. "We're not hiding anything," he said. "We're not doing anything that is not straight up."
Nevertheless, Lawler characterized the disagreements as "a crisis." The President's House project, he noted, is being constructed with public funds and "should represent the highest level of scholarship and design."
The board of the Independence Hall Association (IHA), a private group that spearheaded creation of Independence National Historical Park in the 1940s, last week sent an e-mail to park superintendent Cynthia MacLeod complaining that the project was "moving ahead without either the benefit of oversight or appropriate vetting of the plans."
The project is, in fact, being managed by the city — which will announce subcontractors at an 11:30 a.m. news conference tomorrow — while it is the park's responsibility to ensure compliance with federal mandates and code matters.
The IHA and Lawler, who is an IHA adviser, contend the architects and the city misled the Park Service by changing the design in secret. The IHA e-mail — which can be read at http://www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse/index.htm — says, "We understand that you were also kept in the dark about the architect's changes until recently. . . ."
The association raised several specific criticisms about the current design. First, as now designed, the front wall of the memorial on Market Street is about two feet shy of the original 18th-century house front, the e-mail says.
Beyond that, the IHA asserts that the Kelly design features an octagonal window, not a curved bow window, at the rear of the house. Archaeological findings two years ago uncovered the curved foundation for the famous Washington-designed window, said to be a precursor of the White House oval rooms.
The association then contends that "the architects' final plan has moved the 'slave quarters' " that Washington wanted built to house enslaved stable workers. The quarters were located about five feet from the front of the Liberty Bell Center, compelling visitors to that icon of liberty to walk directly over the spot where the first U.S. president housed chattel slaves.
Kelly said the precise location of the slave quarters will be marked in the pavement. An above-ground commemorative structure — a homage to the nine slaves who labored and slept in various areas of the house, including the quarters — needed to be located to ensure compliance with federal mandates on access for the disabled, among other things.
That said, Kelly has determined that it is possible to configure the slave memorial — a room evoking the 18th-century quarters — so that "we can construct the memorial on top of the . . . slave quarters and still have clearances" required by law.
The whole of the enclosure will, in other words, stand directly over one room of the two-room quarters.
Overall, Kelly maintained that his design melds the 2007 archaeological findings of the house, kitchen and bow window foundations with Lawler's own drawings and 18th-century plans and surveys to produce as accurate a sense of the house dimensions as possible.
MacLeod, the park superintendent, said the park had in no way been misled, as the association contends in its e-mail.
"We are not building a reconstruction of the President's House," she said. "The power is that it is on the site and there are architectural remains. But the [human] stories are what give it power."
In another e-mail posted on the President's House Web site, historian Sharon Ann Holt, executive director of the Sandy Spring (Md.) Museum, contends that park officials are simply excusing their own "errors and insularity."
"We look for leadership," Holt wrote. "We look for integrity. We look for openness. Do we look still in vain??"
Some historians involved at various times in the project have watched the current contretemps with dismay.
Gary Nash, a retired professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has pushed for recognition of the site since 2001, said, "I wish people would pause, take a deep breath, and look how far we've come."
It is, he said, "much more important to get the interpretive material whipped into shape so everyone can be proud of it." Toward that end, Nash said, he has reviewed and commented on the most recent set of text panels produced by the project's historical consultant, Richard Rabinowitz and the American History Workshop.
Randall Miller, a professor of history at St. Joseph's University who has long been involved with the project, echoed Nash.
"Something remarkable has happened" at the site, Miller said: Linking Washington and slavery has visibly placed African Americans at the "center of the American story."
"It was never intended that you would have a complete representation of the house," he said. "That was not the understanding. You're not going to tear up Market Street" to accommodate the memorial, he said. "Let's get real."
Miller called for a meeting of historians involved in the project, known as the ad-hoc historians, to hear the complaints. McPherson, the city's project manager, said a meeting of the formal Oversight Committee would be held to discuss the issues.
Karen Warrington, aide to U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, a Philadelphia Democrat and a member of the Oversight Committee, said "we're not going to get stuck on this."
"The main emphasis has always been on the people," she said. "But we wanted to get it right. That's why we reached out to architects and designers. We wanted to get their interpretations because that's what it is: an interpretation. We're not building an exact replica."
Posted by extra velvet 07:33 AM, 08/20/2009
This is so bad! If it is not going to be historically accurate, than why such a literal interpretation of everything else? This half built theme park aesthetic is about as weak an architectural idea as i have ever encountered.
Posted by hodg99 07:38 AM, 08/20/2009
Non stop construction for the last 12 years at 6th & Market. Someone is getting rich on tax payer's money.
Posted by 2012 ~ Ron Paul 08:43 AM, 08/20/2009
The restored slave quarters at this site are in better condition than most of housing projects in the inner city neighborhoods.
Posted by joedog 08:44 AM, 08/20/2009
"...never intended to be a precise reconstruction of the house where George Washington and John Adams ". Of course not, it is only our Republic's history! I was amazed that any architecture group or firm could not build a structure and site in congress with the history and plans that are so well known. Then later in this article I read that the City is managing the project. That is really all one needs to know. Do you think it is too late to put in free parking for City Council membersand maybe a hot tub?
Posted by dartvader 10:44 AM, 08/20/2009
Independece Mall is a waste of space. Best to just shake the tourists upside down at the Liberty Bell and turn the rest of the land into a casino.
Posted by bottomline 12:36 PM, 08/20/2009
Sometimes I also think Independence Mall was a mistake too. There used to be a lot of businesses in that area, and the buildings they were housed in, which had a history of their own.
Posted by swiftlyons 01:00 PM, 08/20/2009
this thing will be a blight on the citys landscape. lay down some stones telling the story. 8.6 million for 1/3 of a house. only in philadelphia.
Posted by btv22 01:23 PM, 08/20/2009
This thing looks stupid. It looks like a cheap McDonalds toy. It will not last. I give it a few months, then the flatscreen tv's will break. Just another embarrasing "thing" for to have to explain to out of town visitors. Like the multicolored columns at broad and washington.
Posted by btv22 01:32 PM, 08/20/2009
this thing is like a life sized lego house instead why not just truck in a house from north philly? Looks more like a model of the average condition of a philly rowhouse. Because everyone loves TV's outside. Maybe they should just fast forward five years and just start planning for this things replacement. This plan looks like it was salvaged from the garbagetechtural $hitheap. I've never seen anything I hated more.
Posted by bingo 04:25 PM, 08/20/2009
waste of time and money by intellectuals with GIANT sized egos who want there say, rather then listen to anyone else. build it, and stop wasting time and our tax money. or don't build it and use the money elsewhere. it's not historically accurate to have a mini golf at Franklin square then again is it? it's about the tourists and teh tourists dollars.... so tired of worthwhile projects never getting built because someone has to always spoil it. shut up!!!
Posted by unbelieveable! 05:20 PM, 08/20/2009
How long before those half wall have spray paint on them.. Just make a nice bronze plaque and lets save 8 million. Mind you, I love this country and have tons of respect for our nations history. But people we can not rebuild, preserve everything our founding fathers touched.
Posted by kdubs 06:18 PM, 08/20/2009
WOW People just love to complain about anything
Posted by Anthony Palmer 02:55 AM, 08/21/2009
"It was never intended to be an exact replica".....Why not? You have plenty of money, why not build an exact replica? Is there some over riding reason why not? Lawler is easily the most knowledgeable on the project, he's been involved since day one, wrote the definitive history of the building, etc...so why not listen to him? Gary Nash? Randell Miller? They are a couple of hacks, Nash's days are over, step aside....
Posted by js5180 06:22 PM, 08/21/2009
Why is it that the most significant historical site in the country gets the worst architecture in the country, over and over again? I mean, first they cleared the old buildings, then the crappy tin Liberty Bell pavilion, then the new "chimney cap" Liberty Bell pavilion, and now a "post-tornado" President's house. I'm in agreement with hodg99 - way too much building going on down there. Put some plaques and lines in the pavement and let people imagine. This place looks horrible. Look at the picture - it's not just the house that's bad, it's the whole site. Please, just stop already.
Posted by MisterTschopp 07:13 PM, 08/21/2009
"Beyond that, they argue that the memorial - which it is hoped will open next July Fourth - is less about architectural detail and more about the difficult story of enslavement at the heart of the new nation." Perhaps THAT should be the focus. I know that it may be a crazy idea, but Washington and Adams did live there as presidents of the United States. Dwelling on slavery over and over again deflects from the positive progress that has happened since then in the office of the presidency.