Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Cover Up at the President's House

Don't be alarmed if you see city workers dumping dirt this coming Tuesday on the amazing brick foundations of the President's House. The cover-up should be only temporary. The fragile brick foundations, which were revealed during a required archaeological dig this summer (see my May 9 post and May 25 column), are being draped in a three-foot-high blanket of soil to protect them from the elements while architects rework a plan for memorializing the historically complex site.
The expectation now is that the foundations will eventually be dusted off and put on view as part of a major national shrine that somehow acknowledges both the creation of the American presidency and the American practice of slavery. Getting to this point has been quite a saga, as the Inquirer has chronicled, so some will certainly see this step as another frustrating delay. But frankly, the longer this project takes, the better it is likely to turn out.

Kelly/Maiello's winning design for the memorial, which was selected by the Street Administration before the foundations were uncovered, is a heavy-handed mess that will simply add to more clutter to the mall. Once the discovery of the foundations became a national sensation - attracting more than 250,000 curious visitors since early May - the Philadelphia architecture firm was asked to see if it could find a way to incorporate the foundations into its memorial design. It was clear to many that the rough, time-scoured foundations speak far more articulately and movingly than the planned Kelly/Maiello structure. Those old stones testify to the site's multiple and conflicting meanings. In one glance, you can see the outline of both the oval room where George Washington learned to practice democratic accountability and the kitchen where his illegal slaves were kept hidden. Where else is America's noble experiment so bluntly juxtaposed with the evil institution of slavery?

The only question now is how to incorporate the foundations into the President's House memorial. There's no point in looking at them through a window from the floor of the Kelly/Maiello design. The brick ruins are 10 feet below the sidewalk level. A better approach would be to build a memorial that somehow ramps down to the protected foundations, so that you are able to see them up close. I encountered a great example of this approach recently when I visited Philip of Macedon's tomb in Vergina (photo), a World Heritage Site just outside Thessaloniki, Greece. (Philip II was Alexander the Great's dad.) After his crypt and tumulus were unearthed in the 1970s, the Greek government built an underground museum that incorporates Philip's burial chamber and a museum's worth of artifacts. The descent from the bright sunshine of the surrounding park, down into the earth makes for an extraordinary, emotional journey. When you finally come face-to-face with the 4th Century burial temple, you have a mystical feeling of having traveled through time.

But it's wrong to think you can have that level of design excellence simply by asking Kelly/Maiello to adjust their old design. They will have to start from scratch. Better yet - the city should go back to square one. Hire a design consultant. Organize a national design competition. Invite the world's top designers. Include the best historians in the field, Only then will Philadelphia make this site into the national memorial it deserves to be.


Blogger rasphila said...

The last paragraph is right on the money. I shared your opinion on the winning design, but it's obvious that you can't just tweak the old design to include a view of the foundations. The foundations change everything. The city should take your advice and start over. Maybe this time we might get a design that would be worthy of the subject.

2:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The President's House commemoration is a mess -- overly reliant on video screens, overly emphasizing slavery, a numbingly dull physical design. The foundations are the only part of the building that survives, and their discovery offers the chance to re-think the project and its objectives. The goal should be a memorial that Philadelphia and the nation can be proud of forever. Not an embarrassment that lasts a generation, and then is replaced.

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Vince Dean said...

I think it was a crime to demolish all the buildings for the mall in the first place ! The president's house, in particular, should've never been razed. A living, vibrant, urban block is much more important than any monument could ever be !

7:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vince.... You can thank Ed Bacon

6:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The President’s house was demolished in the early 1800s, shortly after Philadelphia had stopped being the Capitol, and replaced with a commercial building. Rightfully so, considering presidents are not kings, they are citizens. The idea of memorializing and even worshipping them came about much later.

I agree with Vince Dean when he says “it was a crime to demolish all the buildings for the mall in the first place,” considering that they took these properties using eminent domain. Not only did they trample on private property rights, but they managed to rip the heart out of Philadelphia’s historic financial district in the process, demolishing nearly all of the Victorian structures, including some by Frank Furness—all in the name of urban renewal. Gotta love government.

8:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I say we pave over the foundations for tourist parking.

6:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a footing not a burial chamber. The story is "Washington had Slaves" not that this is Washington's house.

The foundation is only interesting because the Mall is such a boring wasteland. Tourists will look at anything.

Fill up the hole and let's get on with K&M's design.. which good or bad was a competition winner.

Also while I'm dreaming take down all security barriers (and those sad and gruff rent-a-cops)and open the site up again. All that money to protect A Bell when beggars are on every city corner. That's a story to tell!

1:41 PM  
Anonymous Dave Goldberg said...


I just stumbled across your blog, and it's great! It's nice to read some expert opinions about the goings-on architecturally. I just linked you on my own webpage, We're doing a running, walking, cycling, driving tour of the city, and recording everything in photographs and googlemaps. If you like it, please link us.



12:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While i cannot recall which ruins did this, I have been to multiple sites in europe and elsewhere that essentially put a glass (or transparent) floor over the foundations. This way, you would be walking among them but not affecting or damaging them.

8:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing that we miss so much in many historic sites is the "sense of space" that comes not just from the Great Big Picture-Book Building we came to see, but also from the structures and the streets and the land that frame it. Having a big empty park around Independence Hall, for example, would remove from the visitor any sense that the building was once surrounded by residences and other government buildings. But simply knowing that a little block of land is "where" the house stood really isn't the same as standing on the porch and sensing "how" that building related to the space around it.

The recent decision to rebuild the outward form of the Stadtschloss in Berlin, and the similar movement to rebuild the Tuilleries Palace in Paris, are both examples of this effort to re-create a space. In both cases, the impetus is not simply to build an imitation of a missing building, but to restore to existing buildings a sense of space that was robbed from them when supporting structures were lost. In the case of the Stadtschloss, the decision (so far) is to build a reproduction shell around a modern, utilitarian interior. The push for the Tuileries is to mix a full reproduction of the state floors with added modern museum space for the Louvre's collections.

In the case of the President's House, why not rebuild the exterior of the house to provide a street-level context? Then inside, use a glass floor on the main level with displays, etc., and use the second floor for more displays or office space. I realize that fake historic buildings are now tabu. But properly conceived, a reproduced exterior of the President's House could serve a broader purpose for the historic area.
John Hackney, Atlanta, Georgia

The above was posted on the President's House Web site ( on August 8.

In their July 1996 master plan for Independence Mall, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown proposed re-creating the exteriors of the 18th-century buildings that had once stood directly opposite Congress Hall and Old City Hall to create just this sort of historical context.

QUESTION: Is re-creating the exterior of the President's House (and perhaps the first-floor rooms of State on the interior) the best way to commemorate what was the seat of the executive branch, 1790-1800, and the "White House" of George Washington and John Adams?

8:55 AM  

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