George Washington's Slaves

The First President's House in Philadelphia Will Offer a Glimpse of What Lies Beneath.

Medium-sized image unavailable for this photo.
After public interest in the slaves who lived in George Washington's House, Philadelphia's Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners redesigned the President's House Project.

Credit: Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners

The archaeological discovery last summer riveted people around the world, drawing 300,000 visitors to a pile of dirt in downtown Philadelphia. Now the President's House project, designed to commemorate at least nine slaves George Washington kept in the shadow of Independence Hall, will incorporate views of those surprising archaeological finds.

"People would look down right below their feet," says Jed Levin, the park's supervising archaeologist, "and see the great big bow window that became the symbol of the presidency under Washington," and led to the design of the oval rooms in the White House. "And six feet away, while looking at that spot, they could not miss the basement of the kitchen where Hercules would have worked, the enslaved cook that Washington brought to Philadelphia and who ran away to freedom."

The city of Philadelphia and Independence National Historical Park both favor a plan that would add a glass enclosure, or vitrine, to the site, which will be part-memorial, part didactic installation. Through the glass, visitors will be able to examine the recently uncovered 18th-century foundations of the kitchen basement, the underground passage connecting the kitchen to the main house, and the bow window Washington installed. The $7 million project, a few steps from the Liberty Bell Center near Sixth and Market Streets, is scheduled for completion in fall 2009.

The revised design gives the project "surprising intellectual heft," says Edward Lawler Jr., the Independence Hall Association historian who helped bring the President's House to public attention in 2002. "I was bowled over by how well this has the potential to work."

But members of a group called Generations Unlimited contend that the design fails to express the horror of slavery. "It's about tourism," says Charles L. Blockson, a historian and curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, who resigned from the project's Oversight Committee. The President's House was "a prison house," he says. "Just tell the truth."

The archaeology-inspired addition is just another twist in a mostly positive story of preservation and reclamation that almost didn't happen at all.

The original President's House, a grand four-story Georgian brick dwelling, was used as the executive mansion by Washington and John Adams from 1790 to 1800. Here Washington kept at least nine "enslaved Africans," rotating them back to his Virginia plantations periodically to circumvent Pennsylvania's gradual abolition law. Two slaves—the cook Hercules and Oney Judge, Martha Washington's personal servant—are known to have escaped from the house.

Before Washington, the house, built in 1761, was occupied a succession of political luminaries: Richard Penn, Pennsylvania's colonial governor and the grandson of William Penn; the British Gen. William Howe, who chose it as his Revolutionary War headquarters during the occupation of Philadelphia; and Gen. Benedict Arnold, who penned treasonous letters there. The building was gutted in 1832, the year of Washington's centenary, and replaced by three stores. Most recently, it was the site of a public restroom.

As Independence National Historical Park planned its recent makeover, including a new visitors center, the National Constitution Center and the Liberty Bell Center, there were no plans to commemorate the President's House.

"The people here knew that Washington had slaves, yes," says Doris Devine Fanelli, the park's chief of cultural resources management. But they weren't rushing to tell that story. "Most people in the 20th-century historic house sites were not interpreting the servants; they were interpreting the owner of the property," says Fanelli. "It was the history of great, white dead men."

Lawler helped change that, beginning with a January 2002 article in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. Local media, historians, and African American leaders and grass-roots activists joined the crusade, finally persuading the park service to relent. The city and federal government contributed more than $5 million towards the project's cost, and in December the city added another $1.5 million. (Rosalyn J. McPherson, project director for the city, says the new fund-raising goal is $10 million, a figure that will cover endowment and education, as well as construction costs.)

Kelly/Maeillo Architects & Planners, a local African American-owned firm, won a national competition for its design, evoking the house and its footprint with a series of architectural fragments, including chimneys and window frames. Using audiovisual technology featuring local actors, the ambitious installation will discuss the executive branch of government; the mansion's inhabitants, both slave and free; the system of slavery; and Philadelphia's 18th-century free African American community. The project also includes a monument at the site of the slave quarters.

Then, from March through July 2007, came the dig. Levin says he didn't expect to find much left beneath the 19th-century structures that had replaced the original house. "We had reason to believe there'd been a lot of disruptions, so we didn't want to raise false hope," he says. But the dig was "about respect, about demonstrating that this is an important part of our history."

The discovery, which exposed the proximity of slavery and freedom in the new nation, galvanized the public, with many locals returning frequently to watch the dig's progress and listen to the archaeologists explain their discoveries.

Public enthusiasm threw the project's leaders another curve ball. "But you can't ignore 300,000 people standing on a platform and being totally enthralled and immersed in this," McPherson says. "The site was telling us what to do. It has its own spirit and was calling the shots."

So Kelly/Maeillo was sent back to the drawing board to develop several alternate designs. McPherson says a key consideration was highlighting the archaeology without allowing it to overshadow the story. Among the options rejected as impractical were installing a glass floor over the entire site and opening up a separate basement area for viewing the archaeological remains.

The vitrine design "fully integrates the significant archaeological fragments with the rest of the house," Emanuel Kelly, the project architect, told about 150 people at a December public meeting at North Philadelphia's Freedom Theatre. The foundations of the actual bow window, for instance, would be echoed by a reconstruction of the bow window in the installation.

For the most part, the response to the design presentation was warm, but members of Generations Unlimited denounced aspects of the project in December. "When you look at it, you just see a building. There's nothing there that makes you feel the horror that went on there," said Marilyn Kai Jewett, a writer and activist.

Michael Coard, an attorney and founding member of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, which pushed for the memorial, is trying to help black workers "get a piece of this economic pie" by participating in the project's construction. Coard calls the revised plan "a happy marriage" between archaeology and history. "What we've done here is something that has never been done in American history," he says. "This is our Mount Rushmore. This is our Statue of Liberty."

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.

Subscribe to the Today's News RSS feed


Submitted by johnny boy at: September 6, 2010
Sounds like you are a liberal hippy. Do America a favor and jump off a clift.

Submitted by writer at: March 31, 2008
I was born in Philadelphia in 1945 and I am glad to see that the real history of the city is beginning to be told. The major participants in our history have always been left out, women, blacks, the ordinary everyday people who made this city and this land. It gives everyone caust to stop and think.