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The President's House in Philadelphia

Consensus Document from the President's House Roundtable

On November 18, 2003 Independence Park held a one-day Roundtable of invited experts to discuss the President's House site with the goal of coming to consensus about the interpretation of the historical evidence.

The Consensus Document From The President's House Roundtable was authored by Independence Park Chief of Cultural Resources, Doris Devine Fanelli.

Here is the report resulting from the President's House Roundtable. A minority report, including corrections and additions was prepared to rebut some of the "findings" presented here.

Consensus Document from the President's House Roundtable


On November 18, 2003, the National Park Service convened a roundtable of scholars to discuss outstanding issues about the President's House site. Located near the southeast corner of Sixth and Market Streets within the boundaries of Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, the site has been the focus of attention by scholars and various community groups. The roundtable included members of the National Park Service [NPS] and local historians with a longstanding interest in the site. In order to gain fresh insights, NPS also invited scholars with expertise in slavery, local and regional architecture, the presidency, and Washington. The goals of the roundtable were to examine the relative primary evidence about the site and to attempt to resolve questions regarding the Washington occupation of the property.

The members of the roundtable were :

  • Joseph Becton, Interpretive Supervisor and African American History scholar, Independence National Historical Park [INDE]
  • Charles Blockson, Historian and Curator of the Blockson Collection, Temple University
  • Frances Delmar, Acting Chief of Interpretation, INDE
  • Doris Fanelli, Chief, Division of Cultural Resources Management, INDE
  • Bernard Herman, Professor, University of Delaware
  • Edward Lawler, Independent Scholar and representative of the Independence Hall Association
  • Jed Levin, Archeologist, National Park Service
  • Randall Miller, Professor, St. Joseph's University
  • James Mueller, Chief Historian, INDE
  • Dennis Pogue, Associate Director, Mt. Vernon
  • William Seale, Independent Historian and scholar, the history of the White House
  • Anna Coxe Toogood, Historian, INDE
  • Sherrill D. Wilson, Urban Anthropologist, New York City
  • Stephanie G. Wolf, Senior Fellow, McNeil Center for Early American Studies
Following the meeting, the group maintained contact by electronic mail. This document reflects the group's consensus. No straw votes were taken. The conclusions are not necessarily the majority view but rather, they reflect the sense of the group after careful reflection on all viewpoints.

What We Can/Can't Know

Prior to the meeting members of the roundtable received a package of reading materials (Appendix 1) so that all participants had the same basic orientation to the problem. The group carefully examined the primary evidence connected to the President's house site, which the park compiled and distributed prior to the meeting. We considered collateral evidence where appropriate. Members of the group also contributed their own experiences in related areas to provide comparative support. The bulk of our efforts at the meeting and in subsequent correspondence has centered on the Washington occupancy. We are, however, committed to producing a balanced interpretation of the site and to that end, the final exhibit will also address the Adams occupancy as well as provide background about occupants prior to Washington and the neighborhood context during the life of the house.

The majority of the group's questions fell into two broad categories: the location and use of outbuildings on the property; and the identities of the occupants and their periods of residency. It is likely that we will never discover satisfactory answers to all of our questions about the use and layout of the site and about the activities of its occupants. It is important, however, to review systematically all of the relevant evidence. All interpretive decisions about the property must be based upon solid research, to the extent possible.

The group agreed that resolving minor inconsistencies is less important than formulating an informed, intellectually-defensible overall message about the site. There are unfortunate gaps in the primary information. More primary evidence expresses intentions for remodeling the site during the Washington occupancy than confirms that those intentions were actualized. After much discussion, the group agreed that we can interpret these intentions and also note our uncertainty that the conversions were completed.

The roundtable has reached the following conclusions regarding the locations and uses of specific buildings on the property. In his 9 September 1790 letter to Robert Morris, George Washington directed the "Cow House" be converted into additional stalls for horses. The roundtable's consensus is that the small square marked within the stable perimeter on the Burnt House Plan is the Cow House.

Considerably greater discussion centered on the smoke house. In his 5 September 1790 letter to Tobias Lear, George Washington expressed a desire to convert a "smoke House" into accommodations for servants. Washington stated, pragmatically, that he had a greater need for "accommodation of Servants than for Smoking of meat." Dr. Herman, an expert in Delaware Valley vernacular architecture, noted that this reference to a smoke house in such an urban context is unique. Smoke houses are more usually found in more town-like and rural settings. While Washington's reference to the building's use is unambiguous, it is possible that the term "smoking" was interchangeably used with "curing" in the late eighteenth century. While there is no space labeled "Smoke House" on the Burnt House Plan of the property made between 1780 and 1785, the correspondence indicates that such a building existed on the property and alterations to it were planned. Anna Toogood advanced the possibility that the smoke house dated prior to the Morris occupancy when the area was less densely built and its name remained attached to the structure long after its primary use was discontinued. The group moved its discussion from the existence of the building to its probable location on the property.

Although George Washington proposed housing people above the stable, in his 17 October 1790 letter to the President, Tobias Lear informed him that the room was a hayloft, unsuitable for occupancy for reasons of fire safety. Instead, Lear suggested that for reasons of convenience and safety, Washington's people "may be conveniently lodged in the smoke house."

Unfortunately, the only references to a smoke house are in the Washington-Lear correspondence that dates before the president moved to the house on 27 November 1790. The structure is not mentioned in any other primary document that has come to light so far. Dennis Pogue mentioned that Virginia insurance surveys did not list any properties valued at less than $100. Further research is required to determine what conventional insurance practices in Philadelphia were. The primary correspondence prior to the president's arrival is clear about Lear's intentions to convert the building to living quarters.

Tobias Lear, in his 31 October 1790 letter to George Washington, notes that the "Smoke-house will be extended to the end of the stable, and two good rooms made in it for the accommodation of the Stable People." From this statement, we infer that the smoke house might have been the rectangular space attached to the Wash House as it is drawn and labeled on the Burnt House Plan. Given the placement of the Wash House and the Stable, also labeled on the Burnt House Plan, the unlabelled rectangles between the two structures are likely locations for the smoke house and the area of its enlargement. The probability of the smoke house's location is somewhat strengthened by three solid lines between the Wash House and the Stable. Given the conventions of the drawing, the solid lines are probably walls, defining the perimeter of the smoke house. It is possible that the dashed lines indicate a roof of an open shed that was enclosed and combined with the smoke house to produce the desired quarters. However, the use of dashed lines throughout the drawing does not consistently refer to roof lines. Nevertheless, if the smoke house were enlarged to encompass the area south of it, this arrangement would quarter the stable workers near their place of occupation. Anna Toogood theorizes that the prime organizational structure for the staff at 190 High Street was function. Washington brought a general's precision to his personal affairs; his interest in efficiency and effectiveness caused him to quarter his staff near the work they performed. We may never know whether the plans to enlarge and adapt the smoke house were actualized. If the addition wasn't completed, the four stable workers could have been quartered in the smoke house, a smaller space, 8 1/2 feet square or some permutation thereof. There is also the possibility that the stable workers slept in the second floor of the stable and coach house (Mutual Policy 895 for Andrew Kennedy 19 June 1798).

One reason for the intense interest in precisely locating this space is that for a period during Washington's occupancy it may have housed some of his slaves and servants. We know that George Washington brought eight enslaved Africans to work in the President's House in November 1790. Three of these slaves were Washington's stable hands, Austin, Giles and Paris joined a white servant, Arthur Dunn. In 1791, Giles and Paris were returned to Mount Vernon and eventually replaced by local labor. Austin worked in the President's house until his death in December, 1794. We know that slaves were also domiciled in other locations in the President's house such as in the fourth floor garret of the main house and over the kitchen. A more extended discussion of Washington's slaves in Philadelphia and their housing arrangements is given below.

The roundtable also examined the Servants Hall, an addition built by Washington next to the Kitchen marked on the Burnt House Plan. We know that the Servants Hall at Mount Vernon was used primarily to lodge the servants of houseguests. The Servants Hall in Philadelphia seems to have been used primarily as a dining hall for Washington's servants, those workers distinguished from the secretaries who dined with the family. It was also probably used as a work area. In his 5 September 1790 letter to Tobias Lear, George Washington stated "the intention of the addition to the Back building is to provide a Servants Hall, and one or two (as it will afford) lodging rooms for the Servants, especially those who are coupled." On 17 October 1790, Lear wrote to Washington that "the Masons...will run up the Servant's hall on the back part of the Kitchen, and extend it far enough to make two rooms for the Servants at the end of the Hall. These, with the accommodations to be made in the Smokehouse and the four Garrets will provide for all the people." The work was not immediately completed, however, for on 31 October 1790, Lear informs his employer that "there will be a sufficient number of sleeping rooms without the addition proposed in the [Servants] Hall; for the two largest garrets have been divided, and by that means four very good & comfortable lodging rooms are made; beside the two smaller garrets (which are really handsome apartments) for Mr. Hyde and William. The four [divided] Garrets (each of which will conveniently hold 3 beds if necessary) will then furnish lodgings for the women Servants — the white men Servants — the Black Servants — and for Mrs. Lear's maid. None of the men will have their wives in the family." In his 7 November 1790 reply to Lear, Washington assents to his secretary's judgment.

While the completion of the Servants Hall is confirmed by the 1798 insurance policies, there is no documentation that the two proposed rooms for married servants were ever built and occupied. According to the household accounts, Hyde and Kitt did bring their wives to Philadelphia and both women were salaried staff. The above references provide a glimpse at the complex job of sorting out just who lived and worked in the President's House during the federal period. To improve our knowledge of this era, Anna Toogood and James Mueller have begun creating databases for the group's further use.

Slave Quarters

Members of the roundtable have spent considerable time wrestling with the terminology that best describes the various working and lodging spaces on the property. The problem is complicated because Washington's staff was not a closed set of people. The staff was composed of slaves, indentured, free and day's workers. The same people were not on staff during the entire Washington occupancy. Members of the roundtable have begun to analyze the available primary evidence so that we will have as accurate a picture as possible of the household members. Moreover, we know that the term "slave quarters" as used by many today, generally connotes remote housing on a large plantation. It is problematic how lodging for slaves was viewed and referenced during the historical period under study. In all of the 1780-1830 probate inventories for Charleston, South Carolina, for instance, there is no listing for a slave quarters or its contents, although there are many references to kitchens and washhouses. We have found no primary evidence that the term "slave quarters" was ever used to denote spaces at the President's house site.

The President's House offers a unique opportunity to portray slavery in a northern, urban setting during the federal era. At 190 High Street, slaves and non-slaves lived and worked in the same general areas. At least some of the black men seem to have been housed separately from the white men. Slaves had relatively free use of the property. In addition, some slaves went into the larger community during the performance of their daily work. The manner in which slaves mingled with other slaves, servants and free Africans in this densely populated area is an important part of the story. It replaces the simplistic notion that people were either enslaved or free, black or white with the complex reality of slavery and race in the 1790s. As a major port in the Atlantic world, the portrayal of the complexities of Philadelphia's past localizes the cultures of race, display and mercantilism, while also connecting to the social, political, and economic currents of the Revolutionary Atlantic world.

Because of the highly complex web of personal and social identities as well as the shifting nature of the occupants in the President's house, the roundtable suggests using the term "servant/slave spaces" to describe the actual circumstances of the residents. While slaves and servants often slept in tiny spaces, they lived throughout the property. Power as expressed in social rank and convention determined how much access to various spaces each resident of the property had. We can teach the social hierarchy of the site by presenting it within the spatial hierarchy of the buildings and their rooms.

Power of Place and Marking the Site

The superintendent tasked the roundtable with responding to the major questions regarding the existence and location of outbuildings and the naming of locations where slaves lived and worked at the President's House site. The roundtable thinks that several other topics require consideration during the subsequent development of the commemorative design for the site. The first topic, power of place considers ways to enlist the landscape in the description of the past.

Consensus is that we cannot overstress the importance of having visitors connect to this site and be receptive to its teaching power. Visitors to this site have made themselves available to learning and we must capitalize on that opportunity. In addition to acknowledging the presence of slaves throughout the site, we can take advantage of the power of this place by marking one spot that is most powerful. The roundtable supports marking the spot where the stables and smoke house were that is now near the entrance to the Liberty Bell Center as a juxtaposition of slavery and liberty. This location is intended to be a reminder, not a substitute for interpreting the presence of slavery throughout the site.

The group recommends outlining the perimeter of the stable and the other buildings in the ground as much as practicable. We also favor the inclusion of the interior plan of the main floors of the buildings in the on-the-ground representation. Bernard Herman stated, "the details of the architectural experience are central to meaningful and compelling interpretations of the site." Providing as much information as possible about the buildings will permit better first-person interpretation. We favor exploring a wide range of media techniques that will permit the portrayal of the interior spaces of the remaining levels of the buildings from cellars to garrets.

In addition to marking the buildings on the ground at the Liberty Bell Center entrance, a graphic would emphasize the contrast between slavery and freedom. The graphic should be visible from within and without the park complex. Although we considered a depiction of the chained slave with the words, "Am I not a man and a brother?," from Josiah Wedgewood's medallion, Charles Blockson dissuaded the group from this image because it carries negative notions of oppression and bondage in the African American community. Another possible image, Samuel Jennings' painting, Liberty Displaying the Arts and Sciences was also discounted because of its interpretation by the African American community as a portrayal of an idealized scene of freedom according to white terms in which Africans lacked agency. It is extremely important that the graphics chosen, whether period or newly-created, carry images that are read positively in terms of the cognition of both the white and African American communities. Mr. Blockson stressed the necessity that the graphics portray African agency and the roundtable encourages the designers to be mindful of this sensitive cultural issue. Joseph Becton pointed out that we should abandon the use of the Presidential seal within the outline of the main house as suggested in the Olin/Ciulla design. His subsequent research has concluded that the Presidential seal was not used until the late nineteenth century. The Great Seal of the United States or the Chain of States might be appropriate substitutes.

In addition to using the ground as a canvas for outlining the former buildings and interpreting the occupants of the property, the roundtable encourages the employment of a full range of label copy, graphics on piers and free-standing signage to convey the complex stories at this site. The group understands that portions of the footprint for the main house would extend onto the present sidewalk. The Olin/Ciulla design plan did not take the concept to a fully-developed interpretation; it should be noted, however, that plan did press the boundary of the site by depicting the northern perimeter of the main house as it would have interrupted the present sidewalk. This feature would engage all pedestrians, not only park visitors, with the site. There must be a determined effort to make the visitor feel there was a house and a series of support buildings on this site. This calls for very creative design solutions that convey ideas of space and place while adhering to National Park Service standards for scholarship and interpretation of the past. As representative of the Independence Hall Association Edward Lawler stated that organization recommended a bronze doll-house-sized model of the house be incorporated into the design. In the absence of a valid, primary representation of the house that could serve as a source document, NPS policy precludes such a solution.


The roundtable strongly recommends the presentation of the President's House within its temporal and spatial contexts. Washington wasn't unique as a slaveholder in Philadelphia. Many of the heads of household at 190 High Street owned slaves, with John Adams being one notable exception. A good discussion of slavery and freedom in both practical as well as philosophical terms during the federal era is needed to provide grounding for Washington's actions. Offer an approximation of the number of slaveholders in Philadelphia during this decade as far as it is available through tax and census records.

Anna Toogood's Historic Resource Study as well as John Milner Associates' [JMA] subsequent archeological work provides excellent grounding for describing the neighborhood and residents of this block as well as the other two large blocks of Independence Mall. Graphics would be useful for describing the proximity of residents to government, businesses and services such as markets. While we can expand the detailed description of the development and occupation of late eighteenth century neighborhoods, we must be careful to stress the practical limits that transportation, civil amenities, and wealth imposed upon the average citizen, constricting their daily paths of travel. As another way of bringing the neighborhood to life, the roundtable recommends amending the Lives of Market Street pavers to include the numbers of free and enslaved residents where possible and adding similar information to the south side of the street.

As an additional way of providing historical context, the interpretive methods should tell the stories of the African community, free and enslaved. Be as specific as possible. During the decade between 1787 and 1797, Africans established important social institutions that ultimately contributed to their betterment. Organizational meetings for St. Thomas' African Episcopal Church were held at James Dexter's home, a site now within INDE's boundaries. Some of the men who founded that church were also founding members of the Free African Society. Mother Bethel African Episcopal Church is a few blocks south of the President's House site. Both of these religious institutions have renewed their ties to the park and they remain strong constituents.


The roundtable had a lengthy discussion of whether the site's interpretation should employ contemporary terms or terms used by the historical group. While the former will be easier for visitors' apprehension, the latter adds another layer of complexity to the stories. Sherrill Wilson shared an example from her work at New York City's African Burial Ground. Their historical research revealed seventeen different terms for Africans. Mr. Blockson added that the term African American is perhaps the most offensive one because Africans at the time did not enjoy all the rights of Americans and, in many instances, had not freely emigrated to the colonies. Dennis Pogue pointed out that at Mt. Vernon alone, terms such as "Negro quarters," "quarters for family," and "outlying quarters," were variously employed to describe living spaces. The terms reveal a lot about the groups under study. While using historical terms will demand concentration and adjustment on the visitor's part, the usage will ultimately enrich the visitor experience. Randall Miller has suggested using the historical terms and including modern explanations in parentheses where necessary. Other members of the roundtable agreed with this solution.


The site must offer recognition of the individuals commemorated as well as make their world recognizable to the visitor. Mr. Blockson emphasized and the roundtable concurred that the stories should stress self-empowerment, not dwell on victimhood. The narratives should offer more than enslavement; they must acknowledge agency and self-determination. The messages at this site are stimulating; they show the inherent contradictions in the promise of freedom.

The President's House site must offer cultural representation to visitors of color. The African presence is throughout the site and may be reflected in material practices as diverse as foodways and the interior paint schemes of lodging rooms. The archeology of eighteenth century Annapolis and Charleston has been particularly effective in documenting the African presence through material culture. Virginia and Philadelphia examples must be found as well. Humanize the big stories. As Bernard Herman stated, "people care about people."

There are important, intermediate steps to take before the permanent design for the site is implemented. This is a closely-watched piece of real estate and to maintain the confidence of the community in our intentions we need to act immediately. The park has installed three large signs on the site that describe our intention to commemorate the President's House and the story of slavery there. The signs will contribute to our interim interpretation of the place. Frances Delmar pledged that a PowerPoint presentation about the site will be ready for our visitors when the NAACP national convention meets in Philadelphia this summer. The park will also be prepared to conduct special tours that recognize the site. In addition to special recognition of this site, the park will resume offering the Underground Railroad tours that we began last summer. We will also offer the tour in Power-Point format on days of inclement weather.


We can all agree that were the President's house not demolished so long ago, this site would have received more recognition as one important location of the executive branch of the federal government before Washington, D. C. became the national capital. Stories about the past adhere to sites and structures. Reintroducing the footprint is important; but also the people who populated the site and events that occurred there are the exclamation points for the structures. We can explore many important topics using the buildings to explain the social systems at work and the important events that occurred there. William Seale pointed out that this is the site where Washington invented many of the precedents that the presidency continues to follow. The President's House in Philadelphia was a major "experiment" with establishing the executive department under the Constitution. Everyone in the household, without exception, was part of the community that made the presidency work. The lessons Washington learned at 190 High Street informed the White House. Bernard Herman felt that our Franklin Court site offers an excellent example of how we can convey this information.

Randall Miller reminded the group of some ideas that we want visitors to know about the buildings. The theories and concepts of the presidency were developed here. Standards of ceremony and appearance were set. There were Native American guests here. Precedents for operating the Executive Branch were developed here.

Bernard Herman contributed the idea that the site must interpret the importance of secular and sacred power. Ultimately, as Stephanie Wolf reminded us, this was a working space. Jed Levin concurred that it is the physical house and its outbuildings that will tie the stories together and make the site alive.

The President's House site offers INDE the opportunity to interpret one of the three major branches of American government, thereby fulfilling our obligation to discuss our main themes. Some of the important events that occurred at 190 High Street demonstrate how the president's attitude and contemporary values permitted the persistence of slavery and racism in America. Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act in this house in 1793. The following year, when Philadelphia experienced a wave of immigration from the Haitian revolution, he signed a Naturalization Act that limited citizenship to "free white persons," thereby denying citizenship to black refugees from Santo Domingue. But Washington's attitudes towards slavery were not unwavering; his views changed over time ending in his will (probated after his death in December, 1799), which freed all of the slaves he owned. Moreover, by his will he provided a stipend for William, his former body servant, and included caretaking provisions for the old and young among his slaves.

Finally, while this report has alluded to the Adams occupancy and presidency, much more work is needed to provide balance to the overall interpretation at the site. Adams, never a slaveowner, employed vastly different ways to manage his presidential and personal responsibilities within the same spaces. He offers a fascinating contrast to Washington.

Future Actions

The roundtable recognizes that this cannot be the last, definitive word on this site. We identified a list of issues that require resolution and additional actions to take. The first of these is to continue compiling as much information as possible about all of the residents of the house. Samuel Fraunces, for instance, is one important resident who deserves fuller treatment. In an effort to determine who all of the residents were as well as their terms of residency, James Mueller has compiled a database of their identities based upon primary sources. Anna Coxe Toogood has contributed a narrative list of household members. The resultant distribution table should assist the park in discerning any preferences of Washington in types of labor employed at the house by revealing patterns.

The group also called for more information about the residents' daily lives. Examination of published and unpublished account books for purchases might yield more information about possible African influences on family menus, for example. Such details can illuminate the reciprocal nature of the relationships among the Washingtons and their slaves. Comparison and contrast to the lifestyle at Mt. Vernon might also be important for understanding what was unique about the urban situation.

The roundtable encouraged the park to recomb the evidence once more. A close review of the Burnt House Plan in light of the group's conclusions is necessary.

The roundtable agreed upon the need for a master summary of primary and secondary sources checked and to be examined. Everyone should contribute to this work as it will form the basis for future directions. Randall Miller stressed the importance of creating an inventory of known sources for this study. James Mueller has created a synopsis of the Washington and Adams presidencies in order to provide clues to practices at the site. In 2001, Anna Toogood created a bibliography on the site. That now requires expansion.

It is obvious from the foregoing recommendations that all of this information cannot be presented to the public in its entirety at the President's House site. Rather, it will form a body of scholarship that will serve park interpreters and resource managers. We must also share it with our colleagues in neighboring institutions and ask them to carry their fair share of this information to the public. This document serves as a summary of where we stand on several important issues; it also serves as a call to neighboring sites to take up the work that we have begun at the President's House Site. The National Park Service is pleased to continue its work of telling a more diverse history and introducing more questions at the national level; but it is important that variations of these stories are told at other sites. In that way, visitors can experience a seamless history.

Doris Devine Fanelli, Ph.D., Chief
Division of Cultural Resources Management
Independence National Historical Park

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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.