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Source: Montgomery Newspapers
Date: September 27, 2006
Byline: Diane Fiske

How do you tell a story of life in a building that no longer exists and link that with the tragic page of American history known as slavery?

Five architecture firms are vying for the right to tell this story and design a "Presidents' House" memorial to life at the first "White House", an 18th century mansion that stood across from Independence Hall. This red brick Georgian Style building, modest by today's standards, housed Presidents' George Washington and John Adams as well as nine of Washington's servants from 1790 to 1800.

The fact that the "servants" were in fact slaves is the core of the momentum to erect the memorial. The 12,000-foot, quarter acre site at 6th and Market includes the mansion where the first two Presidents' received state visitors and entertained high-ranking guests and the slave quarters and kitchen building. The site lies adjacent to the new Liberty Bell pavilion.

Sadly, the historic house that was owned by financial Robert Morris no longer exists and was all but forgotten until the National Park Service began construction of the new Liberty Bell pavilion in 2003. A local historian Ed Lawler documented the location of the house and the slave quarters that Washington added to the mansion to house his nine slaves. Construction of the pavilion was delayed while archaeologists searched for artifacts surviving the house and the slave quarters that were demolished in the mid-19th century.

The Presidents' House discovery touched off a controversy regarding the lack of recognition given to the lives of the slaves in Independence National Park.

To remedy this omission, the National Park Service and the city of Philadelphia are trying to find a way to illustrate the behind the scenes life of the first Presidents' and their slaves in the first White House. A pledge of $1.5 million was made by Mayor Street to the project and Representatives Chaka Fattah and Robert Brady announced a multi-year federal grant of $3.6 million.

The competition to design the Presidents' House memorial produced, five teams of semi-finalists made up of architecture firms and specialists: two from Philadelphia, two from Washington, D.C. and one from Boston that were selected from 21 initial entries. The five proposed models of preliminary designs were displayed at the National Constitution Center from August 16 to Sept. 20 and the public was invited to vote for their favorites.

The five semi-finalist teams were divided between memorializing the history of the sight in lofty images and shrine-like sculpture and dramatizing the stories and demonstrating the living conditions for the slaves and the Presidents' more than two and a quarter centuries ago.

It seems the Philadelphia architects, Kelly-Maiello and EwingCole actually observed the site at 6th and Market and saw the streams of visitors to Independence National Park and watched parents hauling children and baby carriages through the lines from Independence Hall through the Liberty Bell Pavilion and the National Constitution Center.

Their models seem to acknowledge the need to tell even the most significant nugget of history as cleverly and dramatically as possible. Both Philadelphia firms seem to want to tell the behind-the-scenes story as well as memorializing it architecturally.

The Kelly/Maiello Team of Philadelphia that included builder Daniel J. Keating concentrated on the opportunity of visitors to "listen in" to conversations at the first Presidents'' house regarding the double set of conversations regarding slavery, one from the officials and the guests, and the other from the servants. Visitors could be the veritable "fly on the wall" in the private lives of the 18th century leaders and their slaves. Since there are no records about the actual appearance of the Presidents' House, the team created a view from the front of bay windows and porches. Figures of the officials and their slaves would be represented throughout the outline of the recreated conception of the house and slave quarters. The team writes in their presentation, "As visitors move through the ghost of the building, its architectural fragments reveal the traces of momentous decisions, heart-rending conversations, and the passing details of everyday life and work in a complex human community" Visitors would hear sound recordings overhead of conversations of ordinary work, of the passing of days, weeks, seasons and presidential terms. Shadows would be seen from the windows in images of the officials and their servants. The families of the presidents, their political associates in the new government, their servants, and their enslaved people all come back vividly to life.

EwingCole, the other Philadelphia architecture firm with offices on 6th Street, near Market, with a good view of the site, led their team in making sure that visitors would not be distracted by the hub- bub of the lines of ticket holders waiting to see the Liberty Bell or progress to Independence Hall. The EwingCole team points out, quite appropriately, that the site is not hospitable to creating a "solemn memorial." Sound from speakers imbedded in walls will envelop visitors around the site. The environments of sound create the drama of the dominant voice of the president and his guests in the center as well as the whisper in the corner of the slaves as well as the sounds of horses on the street as visitors move around a room frame. The Memorial will have a primary entrance on Market Street distinct from the entrance for the Liberty Bell Center. Visitors will have their choice of entrances so they can bypass any of the core storytelling locations. Within the house, walls will partially enclose spaces and provide a direction for visitor movement, while allowing choice. Recognizing the state of tired, distracted tourists, the team suggests minimal text and images engraved on the walls. An overhead trellis that covers the yards and open spaces will shade the site with plants, creating a relief from the sun for visitors.

An interesting circle of glass will encircle the location of the slaves' quarters. The glass will feature the images of faces such as Hercules and Oney Judge, two of Washington's favorite slaves who escaped from Philadelphia. Photos, taken by school children with disposable cameras provided by the team, will link ancestors, history, and visitors.

The remaining three firms, Amaze Design of Boston, Davis Buckley and Howard +(cq) Revis, both of Washington, DC, seem not to have tried to walk through the lines of sometimes tired and harried tourists waiting to board the Duck Boats or to obtain tickets to stand in more lines to see Independence Hall or the Liberty Bell. There seems to be little effort to catch their attention.

Their exhibits seem to focus on figures and bronze castings as well as symbolism that include sculpture and the engraving of names and quotes similar to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. All this is respectful, but it does not help the visitor feel that he is actually taking part in a little known segment of history, a segment that includes the unwritten history of millions of Americans.

In any case, the votes of the public will be tallied and the city and National Park Service officials will make their final decision later this year.

 

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