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The President's House in Philadelphia

Philadelphia is home to many important landmarks, inextricably intertwined with our nation's history, including Independence Hall, the Betsy Ross House and the Liberty Bell. None has been the center of so much controversy as the President's House. Our first President, George Washington owned slaves, and some of these slaves were housed right here in America's first "White House."

The story of Washington, his home and his slaves is an important part of the story of the United States. No less important is the story behind this story, the conflicts between different groups of Americans concerning how this crucial piece of their shared history was to be presented, and the resolution of those conflicts.

The Controversy: An overview of the controversy.

Timeline of the controversy:

  • The December 1947 Final Report to the U.S. Congress by the Philadelphia National Shrines Park Commission. "The site of the Presidential Mansion is hardly surpassed in importance by any other historical site in America."
  • 1947 Photograph showing the surviving east wall of the President's House
  • 1949 Photograph of southeast corner 6th and Market Streets showing a "ghost house."
November 1, 1951: Surviving walls of the President's House demolished in the creation of Independence Mall.
In September, historian Ed Lawler and Coxey Toogood of Independence National Historical Park (INHP) share research.
  • Burt Map A facsimile of a map that accompanied the deed from Robert Morris's August 25, 1785 purchase of the property. It was published in 1875 with Nathaniel Burt II's lecture on the history of the house.
In November, the stone pit of the President's House icehouse is uncovered by archaeologists excavating within the footprint of the planned Liberty Bell Center. It is initially dismissed as a 19th century structure. In December, Lawler's research establishes it as the icehouse built by Robert Morris in 1781, and used by Presidents Washington and Adams, 1790-1800.
The March groundbreaking for the Liberty Bell Center is postponed. In August, INHP publishes a report stating that the backbuildings shown on the 1785 Burnt House Plan did not exist when Washington arrived in 1790 (this decision is later reversed). In an August letter, Independence Hall Association (IHA) urges that the President's House be marked in the paving of the planned Liberty Bell Center. INHP responds negatively in October. In November, WHYY radio airs the first media piece on the subject.
"The President's House in Philadelphia: The Rediscovery of a Lost Landmark" published. In February, INHP announces that it does not intend to expand its interpretation of the house, and IHA launches the President's House website ( In March, INHP breaks ground on the Liberty Bell Center building, and the controversy hits the front pages after a radio interview with Gary Nash. Coverage includes the New York Times and AP. In July, Charles Blockson and Michael Coard jointly organize a protest at the Liberty Bell Pavilion (Blockson forms Generations Unlimited and Coard forms Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC), which continues this as an annual event), and the Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives directs NPS to study the President's House, and report back to it. A design process for the site commences in October (see report January 2003).
  • January 2002: The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography publishes Edward Lawler Jr.'s comprehensive and authoritative "The President's House in Philadelphia: The Rediscovery of a Lost Landmark," which focused national attention on the issue of the house and the enslaved men and women who toiled in the house when Washington was president.
  • February 2002: This website ( launched
  • March 13, 2002: WHYY Radio Inteview with Gary Nash "And millions of visitors are going to go into the Liberty Bell not knowing they are walking over the site of Washington's executive mansion, indeed walking over the slave quarters he built at the rear of the house.... We have here a conjunction of liberty and slavery on the same site!"
  • March 24, 2002: Echoes of slavery at Liberty Bell site Philadelphia Inquirer by staff writers Stephan Salisbury and Inga Saffron
  • March 26, 2002: PA House Resolution No. 490 Session of 2002 "RESOLVED, That the House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania urge the National Park Service to facilitate the placement of a permanent commemorative plaque recognizing the site of the slave quarters..."
  • March 2002-May 2003: Online Petition The petition contains 1,119 entries and was available online to encourage public interest and feedback and to help demonstrate public support for this effort.
  • April 7, 2002: Superintendent Martha Aikens's Inquirer Editorial  
  • April 9, 2002: IHA's Reply  
  • July 3: 500 seek slave memorial at Liberty Bell. "George Washington kept slaves at the first presidential residence. The marchers want them remembered there."
  • July 2002: House Rpt.107-564 Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives: "Therefore, given the historical significance of this issue, the Committee urges the National Park Service to appropriately commemorate the concerns raised regarding the recognition of the existence of the Mansion and the slaves who worked in it..."
In January, the designs for the site are unveiled at an angry public meeting at Philadelphia's African American Musuem. Anger is directed at lack of public participation; the plan itself is received well; however, relying on the August 2001 INHP report, the slave quarters are not marked, unbeknownst to the designers and most in attendance. The project is estimated to cost $4.5 million, and the designs are submitted to the Appropriations Committee in March. In April, IHA writes to the committee in support of the basic design, but urges that the slave quarters be marked. INHP defends its position in a May letter. In September, the Ad Hoc Historians lobby for INHP to complete the President's House design process. The Liberty Bell Center opens on October 9, and Philadelphia Mayor John Street pledges $1.5 million toward commemoration of the slaves who served at the President's House site. In November, INHP convenes a one-day Roundtable of scholars to review the evidence. The process is immediately controversial.
In February, INHP completes a Consensus Document detailing the findings of the Roundtable; the reporting of the consensus is disputed and a Minority Report is prepared by Ed Lawler. In July, Lawler announces the discovery of a ninth enslaved African in Washington's presidential household. INHP holds a public forum on the President's House on October 30; hundreds attend. INHP privately agrees to mark the slave quarters in December, and turns over management of the design process for the site to the City of Philadelphia.
ATAC's annual July protest at the President's House site inspires a highly-critical column in the Citypaper. Mayor Street's chief of staff pledges there will be something in place at the President's House site before he leaves office (January 2008). On September 6, Representatives Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady present a $3.5M check to the Park Service for the project.
Six teams of semi-finalists are selected (one drops out, leaving five). Agreement that archaeology will be done at the site during the summer.
Kelly/Maiello, a black-owned Philadelphia design team is selected. A play based on the controversy premieres. Archeology is begun, revealing far more than experts had expected, including bow window built for Washington, "hidden" servant's passage, kitchen foundations. Discussion over if and how to preserve archeology into the design. Coverage outside the region by AP, a Chinese newspaper, New York Times, and Washington Post.
  • "A House with No Walls," a play inspired by the President's House controversy, opens January 24 in Philadelphia and soon thereafter in Florida and Denver.
  • February 27: The design team of Kelly/Maiello is selected.
  • March 21-July 31: President's House Site Archeological Dig
  • June 27, 2007 Ad-Hoc Historians' Letter on Archeology to the Mayor and Superintendent of INHP
  • December 13 [pdf] Public meeting with revision of plans incorporating archaeology. Kelly/Maiello present Revised designs [pdf]
Mayor Nutter takes office and plans for the President's House commemoration are proceeding, with a focus on cooperation and fund-raising.
Funding is completed and construction begins.
  • February 19, 2009, The Delaware River Port Authority board voted yesterday to give $3.5 million for the President's House memorial near Independence Hall.
  • August 21: Concerns with the Physical Design, with links to letters and news coverage
  • August 21, Press conference announcing minority participation in the project. Mayor Nutter announces goal of July 4, 2010 completion date.
Opening is scheduled for November 2010.

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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.