Don't be alarmed if you see city workers dumping dirt this coming Tuesday on the amazing brick foundations of the President's House. The cover-up should be only temporary. The fragile brick foundations, which were revealed during a required archaeological dig this summer (see my May 9 post and May 25 column), are being draped in a three-foot-high blanket of soil to protect them from the elements while architects rework a plan for memorializing the historically complex site. The expectation now is that the foundations will eventually be dusted off and put on view as part of a major national shrine that somehow acknowledges both the creation of the American presidency and the American practice of slavery. Getting to this point has been quite a saga, so some will certainly see this step as another frustrating delay. But frankly, the longer this project takes, the better it is likely to turn out.
Kelly/Maiello's winning design for the memorial, which was selected by the Street Administration before the foundations were uncovered, is a heavy-handed mess that will simply add to more clutter of the mall. Once the discovery of the foundations became a national sensation — attracting more than 250,000 curious visitors since early May — the Philadelphia architecture firm was asked to see if it could find a way to incorporate the foundations into its memorial design. It was clear to many that the rough, time-scoured foundations speak far more articulately and movingly than the planned Kelly/Maiello structure. Those old stones testify to the site's multiple and conflicting meanings. In one glance, you can see the outline of both the oval room where George Washington learned to practice democratic accountability and the kitchen where his illegal slaves were kept hidden. Where else is America's noble experiment so bluntly juxtaposed with the evil institution of slavery?
The only question now is how to incorporate the foundations into the President's House memorial. There's no point in looking at them through a window from the floor of the Kelly/Maiello design. The brick ruins are 10 feet below the sidewalk level. A better approach would be to build a memorial that somehow ramps down to the protected foundations, so that you are able to see them up close. I encountered a great example of this approach recently when I visited Philip of Macedon's tomb in Vergina (photo), a World Heritage Site just outside Thessaloniki, Greece. (Philip II was Alexander the Great's dad.) After his crypt and tumulus were unearthed in the 1970s, the Greek government built an underground museum that incorporates Philip's burial chamber and a museum's worth of artifacts. The descent from the bright sunshine of the surrounding park, down into the earth makes for an extraordinary, emotional journey. When you finally come face-to-face with the 4th Century burial temple, you have a mystical feeling of having traveled through time.
But it's wrong to think you can have that level of design excellence simply by asking Kelly/Maiello to adjust their old design. They will have to start from scratch. Better yet — the city should go back to square one. Hire a design consultant. Organize a national design competition. Invite the world's top designers. Include the best historians in the field, Only then will Philadelphia make this site into the national memorial it deserves to be.