After five tumultuous years of debate, we could soon have a decision on how Philadelphia will commemorate the President's House on Independence Mall.
The city and National Park Service expect to pick one of five designs for the site at Sixth and Market by the end of this month. While the public comment period ended yesterday, the plans can be reviewed at www.phila.gov/presidentshouse/design.htm.
The designers were charged with interpreting the presidencies and households of George Washington and John Adams. Much more than that, they had to capture the full meaning of the fact that George and Martha Washington, while consciously forging the new role of executive in a free republic, worked just as hard to deny the blessings of liberty to the slaves in their household. The competition also asked that the designs explore the struggle that, after so many years of denial, restored the story of these enslaved Africans to its rightful historical place.
In short, the first fruits of a poisonous constitutional failure that shaped this city and nation to the Civil War and beyond are to be represented here. A successful installation could be the hub of an integrated "Philadelphia experience" — linking Independence Hall, the President's House, the National Constitution Center, the Liberty Bell, and the Civil War.
A tall order, and not surprisingly, all of the designs fall short of this breathtaking interpretive opportunity. However, a plan that includes the strengths of each proposal, and answers the public and professional critiques received, could serve history well.
The Ewing Cole design makes promising use of audio and video systems, which will draw attention from visitors otherwise there only to see the Liberty Bell. The plan also provides welcoming shade and opens the installation to Sixth Street, right where Independence National Historical Park urgently needs to offer some interpretive richness while people wait.
Howard + Revis enlivens Sixth Street as well, with statues of two free black community leaders, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, evoking the popular life-sized statues in the Constitution Center's Founders Hall. Their design also includes the first president at his desk, a clever nod to the work done here by both Washington and Adams. A narrative sculpture honors the nine enslaved in this house, as well as the millions of slaves whose names we do not know, together with activists of today.
The Kelly/Maeillo design also has audio and video content, while boldly showing the names of the nine enslaved Africans on a wall. The executive story gets needed attention, anchored by echoes of the stairway that once led to the second-floor presidential office. The well-rendered evocation of the vanished architecture and Edward Lawler Jr.'s carefully researched floor plan also includes an impressive entrance from Market Street.
Amaze offers a deeply symbolic environment with some shade. It's built around an abstract tower, nine windows, chairs, and pillars, all to honor the nine slaves, and includes a tranquil water feature where the slave quarters once stood.
Davis-Buckley proposes the most effective treatment of the slave quarters, sheathing the nearby pillar with grave-black granite and creating a glass-covered pit at the quarters site. In the pit, they would place soil from the many African nations engulfed by the slave trade. Freedom Park in South Africa uses boulders from every region to create a similarly powerful commemorative space.
Some elements are virtually absent from all of the designs, notably John and Abigail Adams and Martha Washington. Free black Philadelphia also gets short shrift. However, by addressing these concerns and combining the five designers' most successful elements, Philadelphia can achieve a memorable and educational installation.
For example, use Davis-Buckley's approach to the slave quarters, but add the names of the nine and introduce the sound of moving water, its noises rising from the glass-covered pit. Use the strong architecture and well-rounded interpretation of the Kelly/Maiello design but open the eastern side to Sixth Street. Extend the now-truncated stairway to the location of the former presidential office. This would add shade and provide a setting where the Howard + Revis sculpture of Washington at his desk could be positioned to excellent effect.
Advocates have fought for years for this installation, and it is worth fighting on for something richer than any of these individual designs. The real winners at the end of this exercise will not be the designers, but the people, the city, the past, the ancestors — even, perhaps, the truth.
Sharon Ann Holt is director of programs for the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities at Rutgers University-Camden and a member of the Ad Hoc Historians, an advisory group on the President's House