It's a tiny spot of land, no bigger than a townhouse lot, and yet it served as both a laboratory for democracy and a den of bondage. It's where the office of the American presidency was invented two centuries ago, and where its first two occupants lived while on the job. But not long ago, historians discovered that the house that once stood on Independence Mall at the corner of Sixth and Market Streets was also where George Washington kept nine people as his personal slaves.
Such morally complex events make for compelling history. But transforming that nuanced story into architecture is a more daunting task. It might well be impossible.
That hasn't stopped the city and the National Park Service from trying. Last fall, they asked designers to submit ideas for commemorating the rented townhouse where Washington and John Adams handled the affairs of state from 1790 to 1800, when Philadelphia was the nation's capital. After culling the five best proposals, they put the schemes on display in August at the National Constitution Center and called on the public to comment.
You still have a few days left to weigh in on the designs for the President's House memorial, which will remain in the Constitution Center's lobby through Wednesday. The proposals can also be viewed on the city Web site, at http://www.phila.gov/presidentshouse/design.htm. But you'd better hurry. Even though the brief comment period started when Philadelphia was deep into vacation mode, the city and park service are intent on announcing a winning design by the end of September.
It's a shame the organizers are rushing to judgment. While the proposals include some good ideas, they are, on the whole, a dispiriting bunch. None of the designs manages to strike the perfect balance between the site's colliding themes: the birth of our democracy and the congenital taint of slavery. They also fail to create a contemplative space that evokes the unsettling juxtaposition. These are textbooks in architectural form; they lecture, and rather pedantically, at that.
It's partly a problem of emphasis. The enslavement of black Africans was an evil that poisoned America's beginnings, and its legacy still dogs our country today. But aside from the proposals by Kelly/Maiello and Howard + Revis, the designers would have you think it was the dominant issue.
Most of the designers forget that Washington spent his presidency struggling to hold the young nation together, fending off hostile takeovers by Britain and France. It was here in Philadelphia, in a 45-foot-wide townhouse, that Washington and Adams (who did not keep slaves) established the basic forms of the executive branch, including meeting with constituents in an oval-shaped office and holding ceremonial bill-signings. They proved that citizens, and not just kings, could rule effectively. The tragedy is that, to be effective, the first presidents avoided a reckoning with slavery.
Some of the weaknesses in the designs can be traced back to the Request for Proposals issued last year by the city. Tellingly, it never describes the Thing That Is to Be Built at Sixth and Market as either a memorial or a museum. The commemorative structure is always referred to as "The Project," a phrase more suitable to a lawsuit than one of the nation's most important historic sites.
The five finalists have taken that ambiguous language as a license to clutter the corner with vast amounts of stuff, including bronze sculptures, towers, trellises, LED screens, viewing platforms and theaters. As it is, the tiny 12,000-square-foot site is cheek-by-jowl with the Liberty Bell Center, a design that already suffers from architectural overload.
Three of the five finalists appear so taken with their pile-up of ideas that they would wall off the corner of Sixth and Market, blocking interior views and further segregating the mall from Philadelphia's streets. Just when you think the park can't be junked up with any more blank walls, the possibility looms. The entries from Amaze Design and Ewing Cole are the worst offenders in this regard.
Generally, the designs behave as if the Liberty Bell Center weren't there. But it is, and its many text panels address similar themes of freedom and bondage. In an unfortunate irony, Edward Lawler's scholarship confirming the house's exact footprint wasn't published until the center's construction was about to start. His research showed that the entrance to the new shrine to liberty would be located on the precise spot where Washington's slaves were quartered.
The bell center was further compromised after 9/11, when an ungainly security hut was appended to its western flank. Talk about bad karma. So, beyond their obligation to balance the conflicting themes of liberty and bondage, the designers of the President's House memorial need to create a setting that calms the visually cluttered bell center. Ideally, the memorial (or museum) should be simple and transparent, not complicated and enclosing.
Only Davis Buckley's proposal even comes close to achieving that openness. But its content is badly skewed. To enter the space, you would pass through a gateway inscribed with the slave census of 1790. "The Project" would largely become a memorial to the Slaves' House rather than to the President's House.
As with the troubled memorial at ground zero in New York, the design here risks being undermined by the need to satisfy many interest groups. The finalists all load on the text panels in an effort to communicate the site's multiple historical meanings. Indeed, since the park service began renovating the mall six years ago, it has plastered the park with words. All those text panels are deadening.
A good memorial can't be instructional; it has to be evocative. You have to walk only a few blocks east to find one of the most eloquently suggestive efforts, the ghost house of Franklin Court, by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown.
Oddly enough, the ghost of the ghost house hovers over the designs of all five finalists. But while they borrow the basic concept, none of the President's House designers have yet captured Franklin Court's spare poetry. A lot more editing is needed.