Philadelphia — With temperatures in the mid-20s, the mid- December dedication of the President's House was an occasion for celebration (that the site, after eight years of controversy and delays, was finished), thoughtful rumination (about the entanglement of liberty and slavery in Federalist America) and incipient frostbite.
Abutting the Liberty Bell Center in the heart of Independence National Historical Park, the $11.9 million project combines architecture and archaeology, memorial and exhibition, in an open-air setting. The exhibition, "The President's House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation," touches on the uses and abuses of federal power, the spread of slavery, Philadelphia's 18th- century free-black community — and, most tellingly, the occupants of the house itself.
The original President's House was the seat of U.S. executive power from 1790 to 1800 — the home of President George Washington and his successor, John Adams. Built in the late 1760s at what is now the corner of Sixth and Market Streets and mostly demolished in the 1830s, the gracious Georgian mansion was at various times the residence of British Gen. William Howe, the traitor Benedict Arnold (who hatched his treason here) and Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris.
But not only dignitaries called this place home. During Washington's presidency, nine "enslaved people" (in the exhibition's vernacular) also lived and worked here, just a block from Independence Hall.
Washington periodically rotated his slaves back to his Mount Vernon, Va., plantation to circumvent Pennsylvania's Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, which would have freed them after six months of residency. Two of the nine eventually escaped and were never recaptured, despite Washington's signing of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act.
Situated within a deliberately fragmentary re-creation of the house, the exhibition provides an intriguing sketch of this complex story. But its nonlinear, mosaic-like narrative — essentially, another set of fragments — would work better in a more sheltered space. The blustery winter weather made absorbing lengthy texts and watching five videos something of an ordeal. A simple, elegant memorial — supplemented by an exhibition in the Independence Visitor Center, across the street — would have been a smarter design choice.
Yet there is no gainsaying the power of the history. That this place was all but forgotten for so long — and its site used for a public restroom — is amazing. In the January 2002 issue of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, the historian Edward Lawler Jr. pinpointed the house's precise location and features, and lit an intellectual conflagration by declaring that "the last thing that a visitor will walk across . . . before entering the Liberty Bell Center will be the slave quarters that George Washington added to the President's House."
Grass-roots organizations — including the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, Generations Unlimited and the Ad Hoc Historians — agitated for recognition of the site, and especially its significance to African-Americans.
After initial resistance, the National Park Service and the city of Philadelphia embraced the memorial project. But the development process was contentious. The first interpretive team, the Brooklyn-based American History Workshop, was replaced by Eisterhold Associates of Kansas City, Mo. Rhetorical battles were waged over design and interpretation, including how to balance the mansion's presidential history with its connections to slavery. (That battle seems to have been fought to a draw.)
An archaeological dig in 2007 uncovered the house's 18th-century foundations — the remains of the kitchen and corridors where slaves toiled and of a bay window addition that may have inspired the design of the Oval Office. The electrifying finds drew more than 300,000 visitors and were incorporated into the final design.
That design, by Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners, owes more than a little to Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's Franklin Court, which commemorates Benjamin Franklin's razed dwelling a few blocks away. Like that memorial, the President's House is not a reconstruction, but an evocation of a house, using red-brick walls, granite flooring, and white door and window frames to mark its footprint. Fireplaces interrupt the walls, and videos are set above them like paintings. The focal point of the design is a rectangular glass box that both protects and highlights the archaeological fragments below.
While the Franklin memorial is a pendant to an underground Franklin museum, now being renovated, the President's House structure itself provides the backdrop for text panels, illustrated glass panels, distracting ambient sound and informative, visually crisp but dramatically inert videos (written by Lorene Cary and directed by Louis Massiah).
The exhibition mentions the Whiskey Rebellion, the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the migration of Haitian slave owners to Philadelphia, the yellow fever outbreaks of the 1790s, and the formation of Philadelphia's first two black churches. It suggests that contact with Philadelphia's free black community, as well as white abolitionists, heightened the restlessness of Washington's slaves.
But restoring those nine people to history is the project's signal accomplishment. In the moving finale of his dedication address, Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter recited their names, etched on a granite wall on the structure's east side. The nine (and all the victims of slavery) are also commemorated by an uninspired box-like memorial-within-the-memorial.
Videos sum up the little that is known of their lives, describing the escapes of Oney Judge, maid to Martha Custis Washington, and Hercules, George Washington's gifted chef. Learning she was about to be given to Martha's grandchild, Judge fled, in 1796, to New Hampshire, where she married and had three children. Washington apparently never stopped pursuing her. Under his steward's name, he placed an advertisement for a "light Mulatto" fugitive and offered a reward of $10 or more for her capture.
Hercules, shipped back to Mount Vernon to make bricks, snuck away from the Virginia plantation in 1797, on Washington's 65th birthday. He left behind at least three children and virtually no documentary trail.
Washington was, we now know, conflicted about slavery. As the exhibition relates, his will freed the 123 slaves he owned, with emancipation to occur after his wife's death. She liberated them herself in 1801. But she did not emancipate her own 153 "dower" slaves, from the estate of her first husband; she left them instead to her grandchildren.
That created a conundrum on the plantation: mixed marriages between enslaved and free spouses. A video asks just how this would have played out in human terms — and whether Washington and his wife ever discussed the differing fates of their workers. These are provocative questions — portals to yet more dark, intricate corridors of history.
Ms. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.