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The President's House in Philadelphia

Ad-Hoc Historians' Letter to the Mayor and to the Superintendent of INHP

June 27, 2007

Mr. Dennis Reidenbach
Independence National Historical Park
143 S. 3rd Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
The Honorable John F. Street
City of Philadelphia
Room 215 City Hall
Philadelphia, PA 19107

Dear Mayor Street and Superintendent Reidenbach,

The Ad Hoc Historians have been impressed, and indeed deeply moved, by the substantial archaeological finds at the President's House site and the honest and challenging conversations about race, history, and truth that take place daily on the observation platform. It is our overwhelming desire and common interest to ensure continued public exposure to those eloquent remains and, by so doing, to extend the life of those essential conversations. We are pleased to hear, therefore, that you have declined to take any options off the table prematurely and have asked the "task force," by which we assume you mean the oversight committee, to propose within the next 60 days new possibilities for enriching interpretation of the site. We offer our perspectives to support the task force in responding to your call. We strongly support broadening the scope, increasing the funding, and re-thinking the timelines in the existing contract with Kelly/Maiello to allow the design team to respond fully and professionally to the newly uncovered richness of the site. That response may include adding new professional expertise to the design team to interpret the archaeology for visitors to the site. K/M should be fully supported in its efforts to do the right thing on this amazing site, and not be penalized or forced to shoulder risks that they had no hand in creating.

We recommend that K/M be asked to propose the general outlines of up to three alternative site designs including the archaeology — perhaps one ideal, one minimal, and one somewhere in between. We strongly recommend against separating designs for the underground area from designs to be built at grade, as this would be an open invitation to mediocre design and visitor confusion. K/M's integrated proposals should be shared with the oversight committee and through them with the larger community, for discussion and evaluation. Ultimately, those designs should be used as the basis for re-drawing the scope of the project and specifying appropriate changes in the design/build contract. In support of enriching the interpretive potential on the President's House site, the Ad Hoc Historians wish to highlight several opportunities presented by the archaeological dig for the designers to consider.

  1. First, the historians consulting with the designers on interpretive content should make every effort to visit the dig while it is open, to view the finds and to participate in the remarkable dialogue taking place on the platform. As these people are our professional colleagues, we have also contacted them directly to encourage them to visit.
  2. Second, the richest interpretive power of the archeaology lies in the close proximity of Hercules' kitchen, the underground passageway used by household servants and slaves, and the presidential bow window. Visitors should be given access to these finds as a whole in order to highlight the close intertwining of slavery and freedom. We would ask that the designers resist all temptation to create separate vantage points that would disconnect these stories.
  3. Third, conversations on the observation platform have been an integral part of the experience of uncovering these archaeological remains. The drama of the site and the openness of the archaeological team to exploring the meanings of its findings combine to eliminate the barriers that usually suppress open discussion about slavery and race. The absence of those barriers has made the observation platform the site of uniquely deep historical engagement, open grieving over the failed promises of liberty, and critical cross-racial and cross-cultural dialogue about our national future. The Ad Hoc Historians strongly support incorporating the experience of the observation platform into interpretation on the site. It is unlikely that a similar depth of engagement can be replicated once the excavation finishes, but places and programs can be created to support a new phase of dialogue and conversation within the permanent installation. Many visitors to the platform have promised to write both to Independence Park and to the mayor's office to support keeping the archeaology visible. We, the Ad Hoc Historians, urge the scholars on the design team to mine any such letters — and the many posting at — for text that can be included in the installation.
  4. Fourth, the fact of the awkward timing of the archaeological finds should be integrated into the sixth major theme originally identified for the site — that of History Lost and Found. Multi-year delays in embracing the importance of the President's House research, and the priority given to construction of the Liberty Bell Center over the potential of the President's House site combined to obscure and nearly re-bury the story of liberty and slavery on this site. The archaeology is the most dramatic instance of what has happened repeatedly on this site when the power of research has trumped doubt and denial. We feel strongly, therefore, that the theme of History Lost and Found should be clearly connected to the archaeological components.
  5. Fifth, we strongly support raising the funds to extend research archaeology on the President's House site beyond its current boundaries. Because this cannot be done at once, we advocate specifically making sure that nothing is built along the eastern edge of the Liberty Bell Center that would preclude excavating there in the near term. The 2002-3 decision to confine excavation under the Liberty Bell Center to the levels required for compliance with Federal law ended our best chance in this generation to examine the slave quarters site for archaeological remains. The scarcity of privy pits in the area currently under excavation suggests that privy pits used by enslaved people and servants may exist east of the LBC, in what was an alleyway during the presidential occupancy period. If so, those pits may contain priceless clues to the life ways and cultural visions of the household staff, enslaved, indentured, and free. Excavation of that area should be a priority in the next 2-3 years, in order to maximize, rather than continue to minimize, the depth of our understanding of the lives of enslaved people.
  6. Sixth, we would encourage efforts to bring visitors underground and close to the archaeology. Not only will this build upon the authenticity of the remains it will also add interpretive power to the site by creating direct experiences of visible and invisible histories, of "upstairs" and "downstairs," experiences within the presidential household.

As scholars and humanities professionals, we are truly amazed at the generosity of this site. The President's House keeps giving Philadelphia and the nation new resources and new opportunities to discover the real and contentious history of our nation and to engage in dialogue, truth-telling, and healing. We salute the spirit of activism that kept the issue moving and the superb archival and archaeological research that renews and sustains interest in the site. We commend Independence National Historical Park for its ultimate willingness to hear the voice of the people. We honor the team of planners, the oversight committee, Mayor Street, and Congressmen Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady for their unflagging support of investigation and commemoration on the site. And we remain, as we have been all along, at the service of the whole community in moving this great work forward.

For the Ad Hocs Historians,
Sharon Ann Holt
Randall Miller
Doug Heller
Howard Gillette
Rosalind Remer
Shirley Parham
Edward Lawler
Stephanie G. Wolf
Ken Finkel
Charlene Mires

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Copyright ©1999- by the Independence Hall Association, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1942. Publishing electronically as On the Internet since July 4, 1995.