December 14, 2010 Museum Review Reopening a House That’s Still Divided By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN PHILADELPHIA — The convulsive currents thatroil the telling of American history have become so familiar that they nowseem an inseparable part of the story itself. Here is a nation, conceived inliberty and dedicated to a proposition of human equality, that, for much ofits first century of life, countenanced slavery, institutionally supported it andeconomically profited from it. The years that followed have been marked byrepair, reform and reversals; recompense, recrimination and reinterpretation.Extraordinary ideals and achievements have been countered byextraordinary failings and flaws, only to be countered yet again, each turnyielding another round of debates.And here, in this city where the Constitution and the Declaration ofIndependence were signed; where a $300 million Independence NationalHistorical Park has been created, leading from the National ConstitutionCenter to Independence Hall; and where the Liberty Bell, as a symbol of thenation’s ideals, draws well over a million visitors a year, a great opportunityexisted to explore these primal tensions more closely on a site adjacent to theLiberty Bell Center in Independence park. Unfortunately, thoseopportunities have been squandered in “The President’s House: Freedomand Slavery in the Making of a New Nation” which opens on Wednesday.It is almost painful, given the importance of this site, to point out that theresult is more a monument to these unresolved tensions than acommemoration of anything else. After $10.5 million and more than eightyears; after tugs of war between the city and the National Park Service andblack community organizations; after the establishment of a contentiousoversight committee and street demonstrations, overturned conceptions andracial debates, it bears all the scars of its creation, lacking both intellectualcoherence and emotional power. On Wednesday the Park Service takes overthe site with its work cut out for it, since rangers will have to weave thecompeting strands together.
But consider what opportunities there were. The construction of a new $9 million exhibition space for the Liberty Bell drew attention to this adjacent site, where the nation’s first two presidents — George Washington and John Adams — had lived between 1790 and 1800, when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital. The house had long ago been demolished — much of it in the 1830s — and in the 1950s the site, near Sixth and Market Streets, was the location of a public restroom. But the house was once one of the grandest mansions in Philadelphia. Its inhabitants included Richard Penn (grandson of the Pennsylvania colony’s founder); theBritish general William Howe (who occupied Philadelphia whileWashington’s army licked its wounds in Valley Forge); Benedict Arnold(who may have begun his espionage here); and Robert Morris (a financier ofthe Revolution). All vanished history.Then, in an illuminating 2002 article in The Pennsylvania Magazine ofHistory and Biography, the historian Edward Lawler Jr. mapped out thehouse and its probable dimensions, and pointed out the irony that just stepsfrom the new Liberty Bell Center was a site that had once shelteredWashington’s slaves.The Park Service contested some of his conclusions and refused to outlinethe footprint of the lost President’s House in its designs for the center. Butthe issue was soon taken up by scholars, including Gary B. Nash, author ofthe new book “The Liberty Bell,” as well as by political activists like thelawyer Michael Coard and his Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, whoargued that the existence of slave quarters adjacent to the city’s paean toliberty demanded major commemoration.There was a cascade of events, chronicled by The Philadelphia Inquirer,including Congressional legislation and financing, city oversight and funds,an expansion of the Liberty Bell exhibition, the establishment of anoversight committee and the solicitation of redesigns. In 2007 anarchaeological dig began, revealing the foundation and the remains of a
tunnel once used by servants and slaves. The dig, viewed by the public, ignited debate. Washington ultimately took nine slaves to Philadelphia from Mount Vernon, where more than 200 slaves were held. And they were part of a household staff that may have numbered two dozen, including white indentured laborers and servants. Though the slaves were part of a population of nearly 4,000 others in Philadelphia, there were also more than 6,500 free blacks in the city in 1790, and Washington’s slaves were exposed to the experience of liberty. We know some astonishing details about the effects. Ona Judge (here called Oney), a servant to Martha Washington, and Hercules, the household cook, both escaped to freedom. Some of Washington’s most unattractive characteristics also emerge. He andMartha Washington pursue Judge for years, though she later establishesherself with her own family in New Hampshire. And though Washingtonexpressed his opposition to slavery, and freed his own slaves in his will, hewent through bizarre machinations to ensure that the slaves he took to thenation’s capital would not be subject to local laws granting them freedomafter six months. He exchanged them with others at Mount Vernon, issuinginstructions: “I wish to have it accomplished under pretext that may deceiveboth them and the public.”So here we not only have the father of our country showing his darkest side,we also see the foundations of the nation at their darkest. Yet here is whereWashington invented the executive branch, conducting affairs of state. Hereis where it became clear that a democratic ruler was no king, had no claimon his dwelling place and was himself meant to serve the people.How, then, should such a site be developed? A 2005 call for designs stressedthat it would have to pay attention to many themes: the house, its workers,the executive branch, African-American Philadelphia, escapes to freedom. Inaddition, it noted that community discussions led to five “cultural values”that should be clear: identity, memory, agency, dignity, truth. There was alsoa requirement that the site be open 24/7 to visitors.
As ultimately designed by Kelly/Maiello, the site is a space bounded by alow wall roughly outlining the footprint of the house (but often departingfrom it), marked by protruding rectangular slabs into which are insertedmock fireplaces and video screens. In the house’s heart, a transparent wallallows visitors to view the archaeological work in progress. And attached tothe walls are either long panels surveying historical themes — the executivebranch, slavery in the President’s House — or rudimentary illustrations. Afew show the escape of Judge, a few give some glimpse of foreign policy inthe house (protests over the Jay Treaty with England), and more give somesense of slavery (including Washington’s signing of the Fugitive Slave Act,which put all escaped slaves in danger).“History is not neat,” we read. “It is complicated and messy. It is aboutpeople, places and events that are both admirable and deplorable.” And thePresident’s House, we are told, “exposes the core contradiction at thefounding of this nation: enshrinement of liberty and the institution ofslavery.”But what precisely is being exposed? A few yards away, the Liberty BellCenter discusses abolition and slavery; the park’s visitor center has anexhibition about the Underground Railroad; the nearby African AmericanHistory Museum has a powerful audio and video history of blacks inPhiladelphia. Accounts of slavery are even found at Mount Vernon.Here, though, we get neither a sense of the place, nor a sense of the issues(and much of the year, the open air will be inhospitable). We don’t learnabout the differences between Washington and Adams. We don’t learn muchabout the pictured events. There is no real narrative. Illustrations can also bemelodramatically contentious: we see a seemingly disdainful Washingtondangling a “peace medal” before a suspicious Seneca Indian leaderAs for slave life, it is also difficult to piece together. The video screens thatcome to life above the fake mantels give the impression of a half-finished21st-century home. The videos themselves (with scripts by Lorene Cary), inwhich slaves and servants provide first-person accounts of experiences, atleast provide some sense of life. But how do we put these experiences incontext? What was Philadelphia’s free black community like? How didwhite workers and black slaves live together here?We are told that the President’s House “offers an opportunity to drawlessons from the past.” But what lessons? That Washington was flawed?That slavery was an abomination? Are these revelations? A memorial to thepractice of slavery is mounted here, inscribed with the names of Africantribes from which slaves derived, but it has no particular relationship to
Philadelphia or this site. The need for some such memorial is keen, but hereit seems thumped down as an intrusion.So what is learned? Not what makes this site special, but what makes itordinary; not the foundations of what led to the overcoming of slavery, but asense of its enduring presence. Would this display be any different ifpresidents had not lived here? And would our understanding be any differentwithout it?When was the Presidential House demolished? Who lived there? Whatwas located on the site of the Presidential House in the 1950s?How many slaves did Washington take to Philadelphia? How manyescaped? Why did they escape?How large was the free black community in Philadelphia whenWashington was President? How large was the slave community inPhiladelphia then?How did Washington prevent his slaves from being freed within 6months as local laws allowed?What are the author’s complaints about the site? Do you agree withthem?
Write a short story about the Philadelphia Presidents House tunnel thatconnected the servants quarters with the main house.