Return to Home PageThe President's House

In the News index

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: November 23, 2009
Byline: Stephan Salisbury

Progress lagging on President's House project

More than seven years after Congress directed the National Park Service "to appropriately commemorate" the presidential home in Philadelphia — where at least nine of George Washington's slaves toiled — no workable interpretive program explaining the site and its significance is ready for public discussion, project managers say.

Mayor Nutter has seen no text, images, or panels, and the design team developing the descriptive historical material has been told to rework it at least twice, according to numerous officials.

Should the President's House memorial highlight the worlds of Washington and John Adams and the formation of the nation and presidency? Should it focus on the world of Washington's slaves? What was slavery's role in early Philadelphia? How should such contradictory, clashing themes be balanced? How can the nine slaves best be memorialized? Such questions, there at the project's onset, are still unresolved, though passionately debated.

Members of a committee convened by the city and the Park Service to monitor the project now express frustration, and outside historians and concerned citizens in the black community believe they are being kept uninformed about what is going on.

Adding urgency, the city has set a deadline of July 4, 2010, for a grand opening with a hoped-for appearance by President Obama — and that, some believe, is now perilously driving the project at its most sensitive stage.

"It has not been pretty, but we didn't want to put anything out there that's embarrassing," said Cynthia MacLeod, superintendent of Independence National Historical Park, which has handed off management of the $8.5 million project to the city but will ultimately run the site.

Many inside and outside the project — now under way at Sixth and Market Streets — want a public meeting with Nutter and the design group to dispel rumors and misconceptions about what is or is not in the memorial.

And some long-involved historians believe the project is headed off the tracks.

"I am deeply unhappy about the process," said Michael Zuckerman, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and part of an advisory group known as the ad hoc historians. "I'm probably truly less unhappy with the product, but I think the two are interconnected. Basically, we are talking about deadlines that people are imposing that make a mockery of consultation."

Zuckerman and many others fear "a train wreck." Rosalyn J. McPherson, who is managing the project for the city, says that won't happen.

"We've been going through what exhibition projects go through — a lot of back and forth, a tug-of-war, to satisfy a lot of diverse viewpoints," she said. "This painful process is to be expected, and I think we are almost ready to come out on the other side."

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.), who is on the House Appropriations Committee and shepherded the mandate into a fiscal 2003 Interior Department bill, said he was optimistic.

"The work that's been done to date is exemplary," he said, adding that the mandate's intent was "to recognize the existence of the first executive office with George Washington and to appropriately commemorate" the slaves who lived there. (Washington's successor, Adams, a slavery opponent, occupied the house for most of his term, until the federal government moved to the newly constructed city of Washington in 1800.)

Yet despite assurances by project managers and government officials, criticism of the way the interpretive program is being devised, and of the lack of available information, is widespread.

Members of Generations Unlimited, an activist organization focused on African American historical issues that has been included in Park Service consultations, are increasingly vocal in calling for a public forum.

"We want a public meeting on the [interpretive] text," said Sacaree Rhodes, a member of the group. "I want the story told about chattel slavery and what it was in this city. I believe that the public — the public means black people who pay taxes — should have a public meeting. . . . Every one of those people, persons on that committee, should be polled about what slavery is to them. We're paying their way. We're paying for them to sit and write lies? To cover up the truth?"

Historian Charles Blockson, a member of Generations Unlimited who sat on the project's reviewing committee but withdrew in frustration, also called for a public meeting with Nutter.

"People are hungry for truth," he said. "We need a public meeting . . . to air things out."

Blockson is concerned that the context of slavery in Philadelphia — the selling of captives from the London Coffee House auction block at Front and Market Streets and from ships in the Delaware River, the holding pens that dotted the cityscape around the President's House, and other dark details — are being brushed aside in the rush to create an agreeable tourist attraction.

James Brown, executive director of the Parkside Historic Preservation Corp., agreed that a discussion of the Philadelphia system of slavery was imperative. Otherwise, "the site is going to be treated as something less than it is."

Clay Armbrister, the mayor's chief of staff, said there would be a public meeting, although he was uncertain where and when, or whether Nutter would attend. "There will be a progress report in the very near future," he said Friday. "History is not an exact science, and there are a lot of opinions on how this site should be utilized."

He said that it has been "a difficult project" and that he did not expect unanimity on the final product. "But quite frankly, when you are trying to engender thought-provoking inquiry, you don't expect that kind of unanimity."

Citizens' groups are not alone in feeling that information is in short supply; at least some insiders do too.

For one thing, members of the project-reviewing group convened by the city — known as the Oversight Committee and comprising representatives of the Park Service, community advocacy groups, congressional offices, and historical and African American organizations — said they didn't meet with the group doing interpretive work for almost a year, from December 2008 until last month.

The Brooklyn-based American History Workshop, directed by Richard Rabinowitz, has been working on the material as part of the design team assembled by memorial architects Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners. McPherson urged that Faith Davis Ruffins, a Smithsonian Institution historian, be brought in to work with Rabinowitz.

She said she was concerned his efforts would prove too "Eurocentric in trying to portray the lives of slaves on the site," adding, "You can't have whites write the black experience."

Rabinowitz acknowledges that an initial December 2008 presentation to the Oversight Committee was "a disaster," blaming delays caused by the 2007 archaeological excavation, among other things.

"We were not ready," he said, adding that there was also criticism of the interpretive direction. "African Americans on the committee felt strongly that the project should deal with the difficult history of slavery and race."

Rabinowitz said he did not shy away from race — an impossibility for anyone considering the President's House. But "this is a small project and possibly can't bear the weight of all that anguish."

Also, he said, he had to be sensitive to Park Service concerns: "I didn't want to set up a situation the Park Service can't sponsor in political terms," he said. His concern was that the "Park Service gets blasted" by visitors because of interpretive content.

Few on the Oversight Committee are happy. Some say Rabinowitz has put far too much emphasis on Washington and the presidency, others that Washington is portrayed as little more than a slave owner. Still others say the problem lies with a general lack of imagination.

No committee member contacted by The Inquirer would speak on the record for attribution because all have agreed to keep the group's deliberations private.

Rabinowitz produced a working program that was poorly received at an Oct. 14 committee meeting. On Nov. 3, the committee reviewed a reworked version in conjunction with six outside African American scholars. It received mixed reviews, according to those at the meeting.

One attendee, Emma Lapsansky-Werner, professor of history at Haverford College, said "there were lots of essential areas where essential ingredients were missing," including "a clear focus on presidential policy and a clear set of threads linking the President's House to the next levels out: the Philadelphia story and the international story."

She also lamented a weakness in the "necessary and difficult job of putting the slavery story front and center."

Others are more blunt. One outside reviewer said the city "cannot move ahead" with the current material.

McPherson said that would not happen: The interpretive group is reworking its material based on the latest critique. She said she would review the new work and present it within days to the Oversight Committee and, barring major issues, to Nutter.

At that point and not before, she said, a public meeting would be appropriate. "You don't show a rough draft" to the public, she said.

But at some point, McPherson noted, the project must be implemented.

"I will admit there's frustration. I don't think that's unnatural. Everybody fights for their point of view. . . . But there are not excessive finances. That's it on the funds. You can't afford to drag it out indefinitely."


Return to Start Page | In the News index

historic documents, declaration, constitution, more