The idea for the memorial sprung out of the groundbreaking discovery by historian Edward Lawler Jr. about the true location of America's original White House. Thanks to his work, we now know that both George Washington and John Adams served the bulk of their presidential terms (from 1790 to 1800) in a house at the corner of Sixth and Market Street, and not, as previously believed, in a house closer to Fourth Street. In the real president's residence, which they rented from Robert Morris, America's first two elected heads of state established the basic forms of the executive branch. Many of the traditions they started, such as meeting with constituents in an "oval office," have been transplanted to Washington, D.C. In a tragedy of historic and ironic proportions, that house was demolished in the '50s to create the great, long mall celebrating Independence Hall and America's founding.
If that was the end of the story, finding a way to commemorate the Philadelphia White House would be a straightforward matter. But just as Lawler was pinning down the house's exact coordinates, scholars Gary Nash and Randall Miller were shedding new light on some of the less noble things that went on in the house. It turns out the house was the first federally-subsidized slave quarters. Washington ran the place with a staff of eight slaves brought up from his Virginia plantation, even though slavery was then illegal for Pennsylvanians. Two of Washington's slaves used their stays in Philadelphia as an opportunity to flee to freedom. To compound the irony of it all even further, the slaves' living quarters were located next to what was designed as the entrance to the Liberty Bell Center — the shrine where we go to pay our respects to a bell inscribed with the words: Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land. Now there's a symbolic contradiction, if there ever was one.
This was all discovered just as the National Park Service was preparing to break ground on the new center in 2002. The project went ahead as designed by Bohlin Cynwinski Jackson, but meanwhile various powers agreed that there should be a memorial on the corner to commemorate both the original White House and America's history of slavery. Thanks to Chakka Fattah, the Park Service and the city finally have a decent budget, $5.1 million, to do the job. After putting out a call for designers, they selected five finalists. They are now actively seeking public input on the designs.
Well, maybe actively is too strong a word. The five models went on view Aug. 16 with little fanfare, and will remain only until Sept. 13 — which coincides precisely with summer vacations. There's public hearing scheduled for Oct. 30, but who's going to remember the details of the designs six week after the exhibit closes? This show needs to remain on view somewhere right up to the public hearing if the city and park service are really serious about public input.
In my view, none of the five is really good enough. Only two come close to striking the right balance in commemorating the two opposite ideas — the birth of American democracy and the stain of slavery: Philadelphia's Kelly/Maiello plan (see above) and D.C.'s Howard +Revis. Several of the plans fail to understand that the memorial needs to be open and visible, particularly as you it approach it from Sixth and Market Streets. At least two of the plans have way too much going on, Ewing Cole's entry and the one by Amaze Design. The last thing Philadelphia needs is another overdone structure on the mall to fight with the already overdone bell center. Finding the right design has been made even more complicated by the park service's decision to move the bell center's entrance permanently from the north end of the building to the Sixth Street facade.
Fortunately, even after a winner is selected, the city and park service will keep working on a design, says Dennis Reidenbach, the superintendent for the mall. That's good to hear, but there's a long way to go before our country comes to grips with historical and urban implications of this important site.