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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: October 13, 1996
Byline: Ed Lawler, Plymouth Meeting

Letter: Washington slept here, and that house ought to be rebuilt

I agree with James J. Cunningham's call to reconstruct the President's House on Independence Mall (Letters, Oct. 2).

According to John F. Watson's Annals of Philadelphia, the President's House was a 46-foot-wide Georgian mansion on the south side of High Street (now Market Street), 60 feet east of Sixth Street.

The mansion was built in 1761 by Mary Lawrence Masters, who gave it to her daughter in 1772 when the daughter married Richard Penn, a grandson of William Penn and the colonial governor of Pennsylvania. The Penns moved to England in 1775, just before the Revolutionary War. At different times during the war, the house was occupied by British Gen. William Howe and Gen. Benedict Arnold (when he was on our side).

Financier Robert Morris bought the mansion from the Penns in 1785 and lived there until 1790, when he moved next door to give George Washington a suitable residence in the new capital of the United States. Washington lived in the President's House until he was succeeded by John Adams in 1797. Adams lived in the mansion until 1800, when the capital was moved to the District of Columbia. The President's House became a boarding house and a confectionery, and was demolished in the mid-19th century.

There have been proposals to reconstruct the President's House before. Most recently, speakers urged the National Park Service to do so at the Sept. 25 public meeting at the Visitors Center. Unfortunately, the answer was that they didn't want to confuse the public by mixing the real and the unreal. This opinion would be easier to accept if the Graff House were not a reconstruction, if the Market Street buildings of Franklin Court were not reconstructions, if the City Tavern were not a reconstruction, and if Library Hall (of the American Philosophical Society) were not a reconstruction.

There has been a change in architectural and historical tastes. Reconstructions are considered in bad taste and are referred to as architectural fictions. Colonial Williamsburg is derided as if it were as fake as Disneyland. The general public pays little attention to the pundits, but they have great influence over the designers and over what ultimately gets built.

I recently gave a tour of the historical area to some visitors from Vietnam. They knew about the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but they didn't know that Philadelphia had been the capital of the United States. I showed them Congress Hall, where both houses of Congress met, and Old City Hall, where the Supreme Court convened. Their next question to me was, "Where is the White House?" I pointed to the public toilets beside the Liberty Bell Pavilion and told them that the President's House had once stood on the site.

Would the reconstruction of the President's House significantly enrich the experience of visitors in the same way that the reconstruction of the Graff House, where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and the reconstruction at Franklin Court, where Franklin toiled in his workshop, do? I strongly believe that it would.

In the many plans for Independence Mall, one building has been moved around more than any other and appeared, at one time or another, on each of the three blocks. This, the Independence Park Institute, is to have office space, seminar rooms, and maybe VIP housing. In most plans it seems to be about the same size that a reconstructed President's House would be. Placed on the site of the original, it would be just off the central lawn of the first block. If the mansion were reconstructed, visiting U.S. presidents or other heads of state could have the option of staying in the President's House on the same ground where Washington lived, beside the Liberty Bell, and a stone's throw from Independence Hall.

 

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