Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Best Way to Remember the President's House? Keep the Real Thing.

The more I read about the discoveries at the President's House site, the more I'm starting to think that the best memorial to the creation of the office of the American presidency are the house foundations themselves. Every day, archaeologists uncover more detailed remains of the original building, owned by Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris and rented to George Washington, and later John Adams when Philadelphia was the capital of the U.S. In today's Inquirer's Stephan Salisbury reports that historians have now conclusively identified the curved, bow window in the room that George Washington used to received constituents and discuss policy with his advisers. It's believed that the shape of the room, which housed the president's office from 1790 to 1800, inspired the design for the oval office in today's White House.

The ongoing excavations, unfortunately, are meant only to be a prelude to the construction of a permanent memorial, above, designed by Kelly/Maiello. The firm was named the designer after a long and contentious competition. Since Edward Lawler and other historians pointed out that Washington kept slaves in his presidential residence, that sensational and emotionally charged story has tended to overshadow the more abstract and cerebral one about the birth of the world's first democratic presidency. During the architectural competition, it was evident that all five firms were having trouble reconciling the two very different stories in one memorial. Kelly/Maiello captured the duality of the two stories best, but their memorial design is far from perfect. It's too cluttered, too dependent on literal architectural imagery and too reliant on video screens, which are sure to break down. On top of that, the pillars housing the video screens will present a very dull, blank wall to the corner of Sixth and Market Streets.

There's no doubt that this country and this city need a memorial recognizing the tragedy of slavery. Independence Mall is a good place for it, too. But perhaps it should be a different kind of memorial, devoted exclusively to acknowledging the stain of slavery on American history. Its message would be clearer and, very likely, so would the architecture. If the President's House foundations were preserved and kept visible, a more permanent viewing platform could be erected. If your aim is to preserve history's memory, nothing beats being about to see the real thing.

16 Comments:

Anonymous Howard B. Haas said...

Better yet, rebuild the house!

Graff House was rebuilt, where Jefferson lived.

this was the 1st White House, where 2 presidents lived! Imagine the educational and tourist possibilities!

Independence Mall remains a vast wasteland. It needs the house. Philadelphia needs the house.

Tell the full story, presidents, slaves, Robert Morris, etc. with a reconstructed first White House!

4:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

we have the technology, we can rebuild it! the bionic first White House!

10:27 PM  
Blogger Davis said...

While I don 't see replicating the house as a practical solution for our time, it's not the worst idea ever. That said, I agree with Inga that leaving the archealogical dig is the best solution and least intrusive AND would honor those held in bondage there the best.

3:01 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

The City of Philadelphia, previous to USA, was a beacon of tolerance in world owned by kings, emperors and assorted rapacious sociopaths that would today be recognized as warlords, dictators etc. Slavery was the endemic condition of humanity outside of the royal chain of privilege. The newsworthy story, aside from the architectural tidbits and artifacts, is the democratically elected presidency. That remains the chief contribution to civilization as a whole that America provided. The protests that somehow slavery has been glossed over obviously because Philadelphia's historical sites do commemorate slavery in proportion to the role slavery has in our nation's history, is because how little slavery was practiced in the City and Penn's colony in general. The burden of slavery's history should not be carried by Philadelphia but rather the southern cities and states that maintained and fought for their "peculiar instition". There is a National Museum of Slavery plan for Virginia. The fact that a slave owner became president and brought his slaves with him should not be trivialized or wiped clean from the tourist experience here. But to bring the historical aspects of slavery into focus as part of a narrative of a deliberate decision to enable, foster, maintain slavery as the will of the people of USA at its founding is to ignore the terrible conflict over slavery that culminated in the Civil War. Philadelphia founded the Anti-Slavery movement before it founded The USA. The underground railroad, the legal abolishment of slavery, and the founding of the Republican party a few blocks from Independence Hall, establish our city as the center of the driving force for the ultimate abolition of slavery. That is the legacy that made a world of difference for those enslaved.

8:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Kelly/Maiello design is classicly awful and pointless kitsch. Imagine the archaeological dig preserved in a simple glass box. That would be classy. We don't need all of the extra cheesy knickknacks to clutter up the mall. Giurgula had the right idea for the liberty bell in his unobtrusive glass box. Why do we need to fill the mall up with stuff? Keep it simple, people.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

as much as it might be a good idea, they put the cart before the horse when they designed what would go in it's place before they did the first archaeological dig...something they should have done when they whole controversy of the slave quarters vs the entrance of the bell pavilion started. they should have done it when they were building the bell pavilion the first time.

so now we are stuck with what I feel will be a compromise. which is what this process has been from the very beginning.

here's an idea...how about a fund that is set up for any excavation to be done before any moneys or designs are drawn up for construction in certain parts of town? before any money is wasted in court fees fighting the slow down of construction, much like zoning laws have to be passed, why not a excavation zoning law??

10:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

KM's design is no worse or better than the buidings to the north (visitor's center) and south (bell pavillion).

Both are urban planning disasters. And honestly mediocre architecture.

Both large buildings create a wall to 6th street (a major planning mistake) and KM's design allows for relief.

The Constitution Center looks like it belongs in an office park and the landscape plan is suburban and poorly executed.The existing "art" on the mall is also subpar. How about that overdone toilet building on Chestnut....awful.

Not one mention of these flaws have been addressed by Inga in this blog or anywhere in the journals and newspapers.

So why pick on this small and racially charged project and not the "famous" firms that littered this urban project with actual duds?

KM's idea of a pocket park will be an asset but not enough to fix this major planning mistake.

2:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the last respondent, Inga has been all over the anti-urban aspects of the Mall redevelopment for years. Pay attention.

11:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Provide a link to Inga's writings and we will see.

3:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The archeological discoveries are the only authentic piece of the President's House remaining.

Some means of incorporating them into the commemoration must be found, but enclosing a 50-foot-square pit under glass would be overkill, and adding a couple viewing stations to the existing design would be underwhelming.

Perhaps the blank side walls of the K&M are a blessing in disguise. Ramps could be built along them, descending into an underground observation room where visitors would view the bow window and kitchen foundations.

This would certainly make the President's House experience a memorable one for visitors, and add something extraordinary to K&M's dull design.

10:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where are the links to Inga's critical comments on the Bell Pavillion, Constitution Center, or Visitor's Center?
Pay attention.

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey you anonymous idiot at the bottom, do you think the person was lieing whe he/she said Inga was against the anti/urban aspects of the mall. You are a moron, its much easier to ask for someone else to find it until you are proven wrong you fool.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Sandy Smith said...

I see that the discussion rose to the usual elevated level of so much online argument.

But if I may offer a dissenting view about rebuilding the house (which is a moot question anyway now), I'm surprised no one looked two blocks east on Market for what I think would have been a better template: Venturi, Scott Brown's "ghost house" at Franklin Court.

That design turned necessity -- the absence of any surviving plans or drawings of Benjamin Franklin's house -- into a virtue, and it allowed the artifacts found on the site to do most of the talking.

While literal historical reproductions can be nice, absent context, they can also be dry and lifeless. The Graff House is surrounded by "newer" structures that illustrate the changes that have taken place since it went up; rebuilding the President's House as it was on a denuded Independence Mall would overemphasize the structure's status as a museum piece, just as removing the urban fabric from around Carpenters' Hall and the other surviving 18th- and 19th-century buildings in Independence National Historical Park did.

The chosen design may be overwrought, but just rebuilding the house without rebuilding the city around it IMO is little better. Better to let the "ghosts" speak as VSBA did with Ben Franklin's house -- which had some of its context rebuilt along Market Street -- instead.

12:08 PM  
Anonymous Howard B Haas said...

Rebuild the house & you will see a line around the door every day of the year, of tourists waiting to get in!

Philadelphia needs as many tourist attractions as it can get!

6:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Build the replica and watch the tourists line up outside the door to visit, every single day!

Philadelphia needs all the tourist revenue it can get!

and there would be no finer way of telling the stories- first presidents, slaves, etc.

6:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

looks like a great casino site!

5:50 PM  

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