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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: October 16, 2010
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

Delayed President's House project to open

The President's House project commemorating the site where George Washington and John Adams conducted their presidencies and where Washington held at least nine enslaved Africans will open to the public on Dec. 6.

Officials had hoped the often-delayed project, regarded as the first federal commemoration of slavery, would be ushered in amid much hoopla by last summer, but disagreements over the site's interpretive exhibits and videos forced a postponement.

Now officials from the city and Independence National Historical Park, joint managers, say construction will be completed by mid-November at the latest, and exhibits and video dramatizations will be installed in stages over the next several weeks.

Rosalyn McPherson, who is overseeing the $10.5 million project for the city, characterized the Dec. 6 event as "a soft opening," adding that the hoopla would be reserved for July Fourth. City officials are hoping to corral President Obama for those midsummer festivities.

"President's House: Freedom and Slavery in Making a New Nation" — formal title of the project — consists of an evocation of the mansion once at Sixth and Market Streets, which served as the center of presidential power when Philadelphia was the nation's capital in the 1790s. The actual house was torn down in 1832.

Visitors will enter a highly stylized brick rendering, created by Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners, passing exhibit panels that discuss not only the nation's first chief executives, but the very real and significant presence of Africans held by Washington.

A glass structure near the center of the site will allow visitors to look down 10 feet to see the archaeological remains of the house's kitchen, where Washington's enslaved labored; an underground passage used by the slaves and other servants; and a bow window designed by Washington and thought by some to be inspiration for the oval rooms of the White House.

Several video panels will present dramatic vignettes written by novelist Lorene Cary and directed by Louis Massiah of Scribe Video Center.

The enslaved status of those who labored for Washington in Philadelphia is memorialized by a glass-and-wood structure at the back of the house, just a few feet from the entrance to the Liberty Bell Center.

The tension between power and slavery at the core of the household — and the nation's birth — has both energized and bedeviled the project from its start over seven years ago.

Those working on interpretive materials have wrestled with issues of balance — how much text should be devoted to the well-known lives of Washington and Adams? How much should be focused on Washington's enslaved, and by extension, the role of slavery in building wealth and power throughout Philadelphia and the nation?

Karen Warrington, director of communications for Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) and a member of a project reviewing panel, said that the discussions of the material had to end at some point.

"You have to put a period at the end," she said, even if participants are not entirely satisfied.

"I knew I wasn't going to get everything I wanted," she said. "I said that at meetings."

Michael Coard, a leader of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, which has pressed for recognition of the enslaved at the site, said he also had reservations about the exhibits.

"But as a black man who realizes that this is a government-funded project on federal property, I'm a pragmatist who views this project as a giant step in the right direction," he said.

Independent historian Ed Lawler Jr., whose research sparked interest in the site in 2002, said he hoped for the best.

"Balance was the great challenge of this project," he said. McPherson said final comments from all advisory groups on text for exhibit panels and other interpretive material had been received by the end of August.

"By [then], everybody had had enough to say," she said. "You can't keep going back and going back. Otherwise it would never end."

 

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