Final plans for the President’s House were presented to city and park service officials this week, setting the stage for the historic site’s dedication this fall.
The mayor and superintendent of National Park Service met with designers on Wednesday. It was expected that they would approve the plan as submitted.
According to Roz McPherson, the owner’s representative for the project, the historic site will be dedicated in November, pending official approval, when it will also be turned over to the National Park Service.
The site at Market and Sixth streets is expected to draw millions of visitors each year. Officials expect the site, which is adjacent to the entrance of the Liberty Bell pavilion, to draw a similar number of visitors. According to the park service, the Liberty Bell draws two million visitors a year.
“For the first time all those groups, primarily school groups, coming to the Liberty Bell are going to have a chance to see something they haven’t seen before,” she said. “To learn a different perspective on the experience of enslavement and what that house meant.”
The historic site will tell the story of the house, its two most famous residents — George Washington and John Adams — and its less famous residents, the nine slaves that Washington kept there.
Their story will be told through five video installations, 17 illustrated glass panels, a series of other panels and a glass vitrine that lets visitors look down on the archeological dig at the house and a memorial to the nine slaves held by Washington.
The project has been at the center of heated debate between two factions.
“We had extremes on both ends of the spectrum,” McPherson said. “We’re trying as best we can to go down the middle.”
One wanted a hard focus on slavery and its horrors.
“If the project is controversial it should be because slavery was controversial and obviously much more so. Also, controversy can be cathartic. In connection with that, the meaning of this ‘controversial’ project ... is to finally tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about American history,” said attorney Michael Coard, who was among those who pressed to make sure the site contained information about slaves Washington kept at the house, in a recent interview. “For whites, it will finally force them to face the demon of past slavery and its present effect. It will also show them that enslaved Africans and enslaved African descendants deserve as much credit for building this country — if not more credit than — as the Founding Fathers do.”
The other wanted to largely avoid the issue of slavery and focus on the fact that the property was the home of the first two presidents and a crucial place in the formation of the executive branch of the American government.
“Our Executive Branch was unique at the time of the founding, and people should understand it better,” wrote said Robert Morris, a descendant of the home’s original owner, Robert Morris, in a critique of the design published this spring in the American Thinker. “The designers took this opportunity to offer gratuitous implications that America is a racist country. There is no information about the formation of the office of the presidency.”
Designers had to be sensitive to both viewpoints and to the wide range of visitors expected at the President’s House. Many of them will be school children, which meant that planners had to be frank about the horrors of slavery but not explicit.
“Projects like this that are historic in nature, that have race as a key element, that deal with people who’s history hasn’t been told in a comprehensive fashion lend themselves to heated debate,” said McPherson. “Especially in terms of interpretation ... We have an obligation to be credible but also to be sensitive to a voice that has often been absent.”
The site is unique in that it offers a view of slavery in the antebellum north, even though slavery was illegal in Pennsylvania at the time Washington lived at the Market Street address. He rotated slaves between Philadelphia and his Virginia plantation, Mount Vernon, to avoid the state’s residency and anti-slavery laws.
Despite the project’s controversial nature, McPherson said she was personally glad to have been involved.
“It’s a real honor,” she said. “This is a marriage of everything I love to do. The projects I like the most are those where I learn a lot. I feel that I’m a steward of history.”