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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: August 31, 2009
Byline: Michael Coard

President's House must be practical, too

Criticisms of the memorial's accuracy are off-base.

Philadelphia is about to make history by reconstructing the building that has been referred to as America's first White House, where George Washington and John Adams presided from 1790 to 1800, and where Washington kept black people as slaves. But the design of the project next to the Liberty Bell Center has recently come under harsh criticism for purported historical inaccuracies. While this criticism is sincere and well-intended, it is fundamentally flawed.

The critics say the project's dimensions are wrong. But Market Street has been widened since the original house was built in 1767. Therefore, the new design required a slight reduction in the size of the house to maintain a sidewalk that can safely accommodate pedestrians. Moreover, the design includes a prominent "footprint" marking of the original dimensions of the house, along with interpretive information about those dimensions.

Critics also complain that a bow window in the design is inaccurate. But the window has been modified according to an agreement sought by the critics, and the design includes accurate interpretive information about the window.

There has also been criticism of the placement of the house's slave quarters. But if the quarters were placed exactly where they stood more than 200 years ago, they would almost touch the new Liberty Bell Center, making the quarters impossible to enter and violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The design nonetheless does feature a slavery memorial on the precise spot where those quarters were located. It also includes a prominent footprint marking of the original location, along with interpretive information.

Many of the critics, the most vocal of whom belong to a group called the Ad Hoc Historians, are reasonable and impressive academics, scholars, and architects. But hyper-technical replication must sometimes give way to practical-minded accessibility. If people can't access or see it, then what's the point?

Even one of the most prominent members of the Ad Hoc Historians — Gary Nash, a prolific author and professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles — downplays criticisms of the design. He emphasizes the need for accuracy in the interpretive material, which no one has criticized.

The Ad Hoc Historians have focused on the inanimate bricks and mortar rather than the 316 black men, women, and children Washington held as slaves, in particular the nine he held here in Philadelphia. They should be the focus, because that's what history is primarily about: uncovering important buried truths. Those truths include stories of courage, such as the daring escapes of two of those nine, and of dignity, such as the against-all-odds literacy of one of the nine. Although the house matters, the people who were inside it matter more.

Philadelphia is about to make history with this project. And the designers already made history by envisioning a powerful, important attraction that everyone in America and the world should want to see. But they won't see it if it's not practical.

Michael Coard is an attorney and founding member of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition. He can be contacted at


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