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The President's House in Philadelphia

Reply to 5/23/03 e-mail from INHP Superintendent Mary Bomar

This letter is in response to Mary Bomar's e-mail of 5/23/03 regarding our Slave Quarters page.

May 26, 2003

Dear Mary,

It is disappointing to see Independence Park retreating back into its "How do we know the addition to the smokehouse was even built?" position of April 2002. This has not been part of the discussion of the past 7 months, and the position is so tenuous that I assumed it had been abandoned.

At the April 22, 2003 meeting of IHA boardmembers, myself, Chris Schillizzi and Dennis Reidenbach, the question was which of the two rooms — the smokehouse and its addition — housed the white coachman and which the black stableworkers, not whether the two rooms ever existed. Chris made the offer to mark both rooms in the paving if the Ad-Hoc historians could agree beyond a shadow of a doubt on which housed the white man and which the black men. I countered that it is likely that we may never know this with absolute certainty. But, that since the 1785 map clearly shows both the smokehouse and 3 walls of the addition to it, along with a dotted line indicating the likely roof, it would be historically justifiable to mark the rooms in the paving exactly as they are shown on the map. Although the reliability of the 1785 map is not in dispute, Chris rejected this suggestion out of hand. (I also alluded to this solution at the December 17 design session, but was ignored.)

Question: Is the 1785 map not precisely the "confirming evidence" of the smokehouse that your people claim does not exist?

It is of little consequence that the smokehouse and its addition are not listed in the 1798 insurance POLICIES (importantly, there is no 1798 survey). The matching survey has been missing for at least 65 years, and no copy of it is known to exist. The lost survey probably would have described the buildings in great detail, but the policies list only the bare minimum. There are at least 6 buildings and spaces mentioned in correspondence by the house's residents which the policies omit. These may have been left uninsured, or perhaps were not considered important enough to list. (For instance: The piazza which connected the main house with the kitchen ell is not listed in the 1798 policies. Does this mean that there was no passage between the buildings, and the Washingtons pole-vaulted the 14 feet from the second floor of the main house to get to their bedroom over the kitchen?) This may be an exaggeration, but it gives an indication of how very unwise it is for INHP to put all its interpretive eggs in the one basket of the not-so-reliable 1798 policies. And, most especially, to assign outsized and unwarranted significance to omissions in them.

Independence Park should stop disseminating the misinformation that the servant's (dining) hall was used to house servants. There is no evidence to support this "fact," which was broadcast nationally in an Associated Press story on November 1, 2002. I refuted it in a December 2, 2002 op-ed for the History News Network, but the misinformation was believed by the designers in Laurie Olin's office. In their presentation on December 17, one of the designers claimed that the blacks had been housed in the servant's hall, and urged that this, therefore, was the proper location to commemorate the enslaved Africans. At least 3 of the representatives of the community groups were under the same misapprehension. Chris finally admitted the servant's (dining) hall probably was not used for housing, and I took him to task for not having passed this information on to the designers. It is surprising to see this discredited "fact" resurface now, 5 months later. My belief is that no one slept in the dining hall.

I chose "The 150 Years of Misinformation about the President's House" as the subject for my talk at the MARCH symposium because I wanted to convey how it was possible that something as important as the Executive Mansion of the United States could have fallen through the cracks, its surviving walls been unknowingly demolished in the 1950s, a bathroom been built in its place, and the collective memory of it been so completely obliterated. Independence Park has never had the spare personnel or money to thoroughly research the President's House, but it has had the responsibility to interpret it and its residents for going on 29 years. Until 2 1/2 years ago, nobody had enough of the answers to pull everything together, and "getting it right" has been, and remains, a mammoth job.

It may be inconvenient to have a "slave" area at the front door of the Liberty Bell Center, but the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence indicates that this was exactly where the stable slaves were housed. Erasing the smokehouse and its addition from the footprint of the house — seemingly, to avoid having to deal with the issue of the "slave quarters" — is deceptive and intellectually dishonest, will not make the controversy go away, and is an open invitation for new and accelerating charges of duplicity by INHP. You had no part in these decisions (they were made before you took office), and you're just trying to solve the problems, but I hope the questionable decisions will be reconsidered, and soon enough that a consensus can be reached well before the LBC's October opening.

Your letter reads as a position paper, and the number of INHP officials and others you "c.c." leads me to regard it as a public document. Therefore, I will post it, along with this response, on the President's House Website. My preference is for our future correspondence to be private.

Sincerely yours,

Ed Lawler

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