A reconstructed Presidents' House faces two big hurdles
When revelations came out three years ago that George Washington owned slaves at his house at 6th and Market streets, it created shock waves not the least of which because the National Park Service was in the process of erecting a new Liberty Bell Center near the site.
But park service officials agreed on Oct. 30 to commemorate the role of slaves at the site, and have committed in principle to reconstruct the house and slave quarters near the entrance of the Liberty Bell Center, which opened in October 2003.
"Our work is not over. We have to watch what they come up with. It's very necessary in figuring out whether the final plan is appropriate," said Stephanie "Stevie" Wolf, who heads Ad Hoc Historians, one of the groups that urged the park service to reconstruct the house and focus on the role of slaves there.
"Of course, [the park service] is totally out of money," she added.
Therein lies the dilemma. For the park service, interpreting history can be costly business.
Of the $200 million worth of work on Independence Mall in recent years including the new Liberty Bell Center, Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center a small percentage of the money actually came from the park service or its parent, the U.S. Department of Interior. Federal, state and local governments paid a large role, as did private foundations and individuals.
A replica of the president's house would, by current estimates, cost $4.5 million, said Mary Bomar, superintendent of Independence National Historical Park, which oversees Independence Mall and surrounding historic properties.
To defray the cost, the city of Philadelphia has pledged $1.5 million for the project. The park service petitioned Congress to fill the gap.
But, realistically, it's possible advocates of the project will have to go back to the usual sources: private foundations, private donors and, possibly, the state.
At the same time, park service officials are trying to find money to complete a $17 million landscaping project on Independence Mall. They also are working out security issues and how to pay for them.
Fund raising is just the latest battle over the house.
"If they could raise the money, they'd do the project tomorrow," Wolf said.
That's a sea change from the park service's longtime position on how to handle the depiction of slavery at the site.
Washington lived in the house from 1790-97, while Philadelphia was still the nation's capitol. At least three of his eight slaves lived at the house, historians say. During that time, in 1793, Washington signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act.
The park service's reluctance to do more may have several causes. One is that it truly lacks the funding to do much more than the most rudimentary maintenance, upkeep and security. Park service officials claim even tending of flower gardens is mainly done by volunteers.
But historians claim there's also been a historic reluctance on the park service's part to depict the role of slavery in the story of the nation's development. There's evidence, historians say, that the park service knew in the 1970s that slaves lived in the president's house.
Another element, the park service has said, was its own painstaking efforts to reach a consensus on how to recreate Independence Mall.
In a series of public meetings in the early- to mid-1990s, the park service sought ideas for how to reconstruct three blocks of Independence Mall the stretch north of Independence Hall. Preliminary plans called for building a new home for the Liberty Bell, a visitors center and the National Constitution Center.
But the park service claims no one ever came forward and said there should be a monument or other edifice commemorating the role of slaves.
The "Abbreviated Final General Management Plan Environmental Impact Statement," published by Independence National Historical Park in February 1997, a 400-page document that compiled letters and architectural drawings received from the public and various officials, apparently corroborates that claim.
However, a letter dated Oct. 15, 1996, from Edward Lawler Jr. of Plymouth Meeting urged the park service to rebuild the president's house on historical basis, saying it would help educate the public about the Federalist period. There was no mention of slaves.
Lawler's rebuff, which came in a letter dated Nov. 7, 1996, signed by Bomar's predecessor, former Superintendent Martha B. Aitkens, said the park service ruled out such a plan, saying it shied away from reconstructions and considered another Washington residence, the Deshler-Morris house in Germantown, "the only extant 'white house' dating from Washington's presidency."
To Lawler, the case was not closed. The Plymouth Meeting historian went back to work.
While tracing documents from the era and persuading the park service to excavate the site, evidence eventually emerged that at least three of Washington's eight slaves inhabited quarters behind the house while serving the president.
In January 2002, Lawler dropped a bomb, laying out the evidence in an article published in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography.
Lawler won the backing of Ad Hoc Historians and Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC, pronounced "attack"), which said formal acknowledgment of the slave quarters was "absolutely essential," given the proximity of the entrance to the current Liberty Bell Center.
"This is truly a case of degrading inhuman bondage in the face of uplifting human freedom. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth must be told," an ATAC representative, attorney Michael Coard, said in written testimony to the park service in September 2003.
"At the time the Liberty Bell Center was going up, a couple of us got a look at the plans and said, 'This will not do.' They said, 'Too late it's set in stone.' We had a huge knock-down, drag-out with them," said Wolf of the Ad Hoc Historians.
Nonetheless, the park service "didn't want to acknowledge the fact that there was a house there with enslaved Africans," Charles L. Blockson, curator of Temple University's Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, said in an interview with Preservation magazine in October 2003.
With an agreement in principle, Lawler hopes a temporary commemoration can be put in place.
"In the near future," Lawler said, "a temporary outline of the buildings of the president's house ... seems likely. Discussions are already underway over how this can be done without interfering with groundswork. This would be an intermediate solution until a permanent one is agreed upon."