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The President's House in Philadelphia

IHA's April 2, 2003 letter to the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Honorable C. W. Bill Young
Chairman, Appropriations Committee
United States House of Representatives
2407 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

April 2, 2003

Dear Congressman Young,

Independence Hall Association (IHA) is the Congressionally recognized citizens' advisory organization for Independence National Historical Park.

I understand that you will be meeting with representatives and designers from Independence Park on April 11th about the President's House site, and I am writing for your support in re-opening the community design sessions and to making changes to the Park's proposed design.

We are both pleased and disappointed with what has happened within Independence Park regarding the Philadelphia house that Presidents Washington and Adams lived in during their presidencies. We are pleased that the house will finally receive the recognition it is due, but are disappointed that the design process has not been completed.

Of five design sessions that were scheduled for the community groups, two were cancelled. It is our understanding that the six community groups that were invited to participate (including IHA) are not pleased that the two sessions were never rescheduled and that the Park Service is rushing ahead with presenting designs to you that were not fully discussed. There are serious flaws that we take issue over. Please see the attached for details.

The past year has been a difficult one for INHP — publicity-wise, perhaps the worst in its history. Although the closing of Chestnut Street and Independence Hall have received recent attention, much of the controversy stemmed from or was related to the President's House and the Park Service's established plans for the site. Until recently, no one has had the complete story, and the appropriate solutions may have been sometimes less than clear. IHA wants to believe the public statements made by INHP that it is committed to "getting things right" at the President's House site, and we are committed to helping INHP in this effort.

Our Web page,, has been a clearinghouse for information about the house, and includes biographical sketches of the eight enslaved Africans who worked in Washington's presidential household.

As the seat of the executive branch of the federal government for ten years and the ‘White House' of George Washington and John Adams, this is one of the most important historical sites in America. IHA believes that the addition to the proposed design of the enclosed recommendations will enable the President's House site to assume its rightful place as an integral part of Independence National Historical Park. With this commemoration of the building and its residents — all its residents — it is the hope of the Independence Hall Association that the President's House in Philadelphia will take its rightful place among the country's most historic sites.

We ask that you request additional design sessions so that the community groups can present concerns which have not been addressed and complete the process which was begun by us in good faith. I thank you for your interest in this important project.

With kind regards,

Nancy J. Gilboy,
Board President
Independence Hall Association

c.c. Hon. Gale Norton
Fran Mainella
Dwight Pitcaithley
Marie Rust
David Hollenberg
Mary Bomar
Dennis Reidenbach
Christopher Schillizzi
The Pennsylvania Congressional Delegation
Hon. Ed Rendell
Hon. Vince Fumo
Hon. John F. Street
Hon. Frank DiCicco
Stevie Wolf
Tanya Hall
Karen Warrington
Harry Harrison
Michael Coard
Ed Lawler


In the future — for the first time — visitors to Independence National Historical Park will be able to experience all three of the buildings which housed the branches of the federal government from 1790 to 1800 during Philadelphia's tenure as the national capital: Old City Hall, to the east of Independence Hall, where the U.S. Supreme Court met; Congress Hall, to the west of Independence Hall, where the U.S. House of Representatives met on the first floor and the U.S. Senate on the second; and the President's House, to the north of Independence Hall, which served as the residence and office for the first two presidents.

The current design process offers the opportunity to redress the mistakes of a half-century ago when the surviving walls of the President's House were unknowingly demolished and a public bathroom was built on the site. Thanks to years of extensive research by Philadelphia historian Edward Lawler, Jr., enough is now known about the house that it will never again be forgotten.

The December 1947 Final Report to the U.S. Congress by the Philadelphia National Shrines Park Commission, which became the enabling legislation under which the Independence National Historical Park was created, devoted an entire chapter to the historical significance of the President's House, concluding that:

"The site of the Presidential Mansion is hardly surpassed in importance by any other historical site in America ... Investigation indicates that a portion of the original foundations of the Presidential Mansion remains intact under the 19th Century buildings that now occupy the site ... The eminent personages who lived here and the decisions affecting the future of the nation that were made here have caused a growing interest in the Presidential Mansion and the ground upon which it once stood. It is a distinguished historical site."

The President's House site was not included within the original boundaries of the national park. Instead, it became part of the adjoining Independence Mall State Park, created by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Beginning in 1951, all the buildings on the three blocks north of Independence Hall, save one, were demolished to construct the mall, and, if the project's demolition specifications were followed, all the foundations were razed to four feet below street level. Lawler's research has documented that far more than "a portion of the original foundations" of the house was then intact. Almost the entire four-story eastern wall of the main house was still standing in 1951, and it is probable that sections of other original walls had also survived. Despite public appeals, no formal archaeological study was made of the President's House site, although an amateur dug through the rubble in the midst of the demolition and measured its foundations. Through ignorance or indifference, a public bathroom was built squarely atop the footprint of the main house in 1954. A bronze plaque commemorating the house was affixed to a wall outside the bathroom.

The proposed design gets the major things right — an outline of the main house exactly where it stood, extensive interpretation of the presidencies of Washington and Adams, recognition of the eight enslaved Africans who worked in Washington's presidential household, an exploration of slavery in America and how it affected the residents of this house and the nation as a whole. IHA's concerns are with the details of the design and interpretation — that important aspects of the history of the house and site are told, and given the proper emphasis. We believe that the proposed design would be markedly improved by incorporating the recommendations enclosed.

Independence Hall Association Recommendations:

  1. The footprint of the slave quarters should be marked in the paving. A map of the property from 1785 shows a smokehouse attached to the south wall of the kitchen ell. Several letters from 1790 between Washington and his secretary discuss using this to house servants, concluding with "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." (The stable people consisted of Dunn, the white coachman; and Giles, Paris, and probably Austin, enslaved black workers.) Lawler argues that Dunn was probably housed in the 8 ½-foot square smokehouse and that Giles, Paris and Austin were housed in the 8 ½ x 11 ½-foot addition that Washington ordered built in October 1790. (Washington segregated the white servants and the black slaves elsewhere in the President's House.) INHP argues that calling the addition a ‘slave quarters' is inappropriate since it is impossible to say which of the two rooms housed the white coachman, which the black slaves, or if they shared a room. The proposed design sidesteps the controversy altogether by erasing both rooms from the outline in the paving; and, instead, shows them on a map elsewhere on the site. IHA feels that this action is deceptive and intellectually dishonest, that INHP has an obligation to inform the public that slaves were housed in this area, and that the two rooms should be marked in the paving and the enslavement of these men should be interpreted not elsewhere on the site, but at this spot.
  2. The footprint of the President's Room should be marked in the paving. Washington and Adams conducted the business of the nation from the private office, a second-floor former bathingroom built off the east end of the house. This was the equivalent of the Oval Office, and probably where each met with his Cabinet. The enabling legislation for Independence National Historical Park recognizes the importance of the President's Room, and calls it the "Pilot-House of the Nation." There is a question about whether the room was 21 feet long or 23 feet long. This uncertainty is not important enough to justify showing nothing of the room in the paving. IHA feels that every visitor to the site will be interested in having an experience of the President's Room, and learning about the historic events which took place in it.
  3. "President's House" should be the primary name used at the site. INHP researched the house in 1987 in anticipation of the 200th anniversary of the Constitution. At that time the focus was on the house as Robert Morris's residence, and where George Washington lodged from May to September 1787 during the Constitutional Convention. In this context the name ‘Robert Morris House' made sense. That significance is superseded by the subsequent use of the building as the ‘White House' from 1790 to 1800. The address ‘190 High Street' is meaningless to most visitors, and the use of ‘Executive Mansion' as the primary name is as tone deaf as the use of ‘Chief Executive' Washington and ‘Chief Executive' Adams as the primary term of address. ‘President's House' was the formal name of the building in the 1790s, the name Washington and Adams used in their correspondence, and the name most often found in 18th century sources.
  4. The individual rooms of the main house should be delineated on the ground, and first-person accounts of what took place in each should be etched in the paving. IHA first proposed this in an August 15, 2001 letter to then-INHP Superintendent Martha Aikens. She replied that "… we do not feel that an outline of the rooms and walls will serve to foster any greater understanding of the activities and impacts of our first two Presidents," and that "… there is not the rich collection of letters from the residents describing specific aspects and activities of the individual rooms, as was available for Franklin's home." Lawler has found hundreds of letters related to the house, and IHA has posted a couple dozen of the most pertinent examples on our Web page. We feel that these first-person accounts — of John Quincy Adams smoking a peace pipe with Washington and 17 Chickasaw Indians in the front hall, of Revolutionary War veterans performing a silent march in tribute to their fallen comrades through the house and into the yard on the Fourth of July, of Abigail Adams watching the sun rise from the President's Room and writing to her sister of how much she misses home — if etched in the paving of each of the rooms described, would create a powerful and authentic historical experience. Why just talk about history, when visitors can be given the means to personally insert themselves into it?
  5. The history of the house before it became the President's House must not be forgotten. The house was built by Mary Masters, the widow of one of the first settlers of Philadelphia. She gave the house as a wedding gift to her daughter who married Richard Penn, a grandson of William Penn and, for a time (while living in the house), acting governor of the Colony of Pennsylvania. Penn was deputed by the First Continental Congress to deliver the Olive Branch Petition to King George III, and attempted to explain the grievances of the Americans to the British Parliament. During the 1777-78 occupation of Philadelphia, the house served as the headquarters for the British Army and the residence of the commander-in-chief, General Sir William Howe. After the evacuation of the British, the house became the residence of Benedict Arnold, and it was while living here that he began the treasonous correspondence with the enemy which culminated in his betrayal of the fort at West Point. Robert Morris lived in the house while he was Superintendent of Finance, and saved the new nation from bankruptcy. Morris was a signer of the Constitution, and Washington, who chaired the Constitutional Convention, lodged here as his guest during the summer of 1787. The history of the house is extraordinary, and largely unknown to the public. All these stories should be told at the site.
  6. The area between the President's Room and the porch of the Liberty Bell Center should be devoted to a major art installation commemorating the eight enslaved Africans. A major sculpture dominating this 35 x 45-foot space — the footprint of the kitchen and servants' dining hall — seems to have been the intention of the landscape architects at the December 17 design session. By the January 15 design session, the art installation had been drastically reduced in size to a panel or panels mounted on a 2 x 5-foot brick pier. IHA feels that this is a giant step backward. There may have been close to ninety servants (with turn-over) who worked in the presidential households of Washington and Adams, but Moll, Hercules, Richmond, Austin, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels, and Oney Judge were the only ones enslaved there. The two piers which intrude upon the footprint of the kitchen should be removed, and a major sculpture or art installation by an African-American artist should be commissioned.
  7. A bronze doll-house-sized model of the President's House should be added to the design. The President's House will be new to most people visiting the site. While outlining the rooms in the paving is vital, it will not be enough for many to truly understand the physical building. Lawler makes an extremely convincing case for his conjectural floorplans and elevation in the January 2002 issue of The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. An impartial third party should be asked to thoroughly evaluate these, and, if they are deemed convincing, Lawler's drawings should become the basis for the full-sized floorplan of the main house outlined in the paving, as well as a bronze model.

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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.