Thursday, August 24, 2006

Try This in One High-Profile Memorial: Honor America's First White House, Acknowledge the Stain of Slavery

There are days when Independence Mall feels less like an historic site and more like an ideological minefield. I felt the need to tread lightly when I stopped by the National Constitution Center this week to look at the five final designs for the President's House memorial, which are on view until Sept. 13. The idea for the memorial sprang out of the groundbreaking discovery by historian Edward Lawler Jr. about the true location of America's original White House. Thanks to his work, we now know that both George Washington and John Adams served the bulk of their presidential terms (from 1790 to 1800) in a house at the corner of Sixth and Market Street - and not, as previously believed, in a house closer to Fourth Street.

In the real president's residence, which they rented from Robert Morris, America's first two elected heads of state established the basic forms of the executive branch. Many of the traditions they started, such as meeting with constituents in an "oval office," have been transplanted to Washington, D.C. In a tragedy of historic and ironic proportions, that house was demolished in the 1950s to create the great, long mall celebrating Independence Hall and America's founding.

If that was the end of the story, finding a way to commemorate the Philadelphia White House would be a straightforward matter. But just as Lawler was pinning down the house's exact coordinates, scholars Gary Nash and Randall Miller were shedding new light on some of the less noble things that went on in the house. It turns out the house was the first federally-subsidized slave quarters. Washington ran the place with a staff of eight slaves brought up from his Virginia plantation, even though slavery was then illegal for Pennsylvanians. Two of Washington's slaves used their stays in Philadelphia as an opportunity to flee to freedom. All that was brushed under the carpet till the park service was preparing to build the new Liberty Bell Center, when it was discovered that bell center's entrance was right next to the slave quarters. Visitors would step over the slaves' home every time they entered the shrine to the bell, which is inscribed with the words: Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land. Now there's a symbolic contradiction, if there ever was one.

This was all discovered just as the National Park Service was preparing to break ground on the new center in 2002. The project went ahead as designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, but meanwhile various powers agreed that there should be a memorial on the corner to commemorate both the original White House and America's history of slavery. Thanks to Washington string-pulling by Chakka Fattah, the Park Service and the city were finally given a decent budget of $5.1 million to do the job. They put out a call for designers earlier this year and have now selected five finalists. They are now actively seeking public input on the designs.

Well, maybe actively is too strong a word. The five models went on view Aug. 16 with little fanfare, and will remain only until Sept. 13 - which coincides precisely with summer vacations. There's a public hearing scheduled for Oct. 30, but who's going to remember the details of the designs six week after the exhibit closes? This show needs to remain on view somewhere right up to the public hearing if the city and park service are really serious about public input.

In my view, none of the five is really good enough. Only two come close to striking the right balance in commemorating the two opposite ideas - the birth of American democracy and the stain of slavery: Philadelphia's Kelly/Maiello plan (see above) and D.C.'s Howard +Revis. Several of the designers fail to understand that the memorial site needs to be open, transparent and visible, particularly as you it approach it from Sixth and Market Streets. At least two of the plans are cluttered with way too much stuff - Ewing Cole's entry and the one by Amaze Design. The last thing Philadelphia needs is another overdone structure on the mall to fight with the already overdone bell center. Finding the right design has been made even more complicated by the park service's decision to move the bell center's entrance permanently from the north end of the building to the Sixth Street facade.

Fortunately, even after a winner is selected, the city and park service will keep working on a design, says Dennis Reidenbach, the superintendent for the mall. That's good to hear, but there's a long way to go before our country comes to grips with historical and urban implications of this important site. I'll have more to say about the details of the five design proposals in my Sept. 8 column.


Blogger Rita Novel said...

"America's First Executive Mansion" is probably a more appropriate description of the Morris House than "America's First White House."

Philadelphia has such great quondam places. And what a great place for reenactionary architecturism! Like isn't the Kelly/Maiello scheme a design reenactment of Venturi & Rauch's reenactionary Franklin Court?

I wonder how Presidents Washington and Adams and statesman Jefferson traveled from 6th and Market Streets to the mid-17th century Swedish fort that used to be at 8403 Pine Road. I suspect most of the trip was along the "Indian" trail that is now Oxford Avenue.

11:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought all five designs had value. I wish they could combine the strengths of each. I completely agree that the two strongest seemed to be Kelly/Maiello and Howard+Revis. I would like to see the physical design of Kelly/Maiello, with an extension of the staircase to actually rise to the height of the second story, and be extended to reconstruct Washington's second floor office, so you can stand at the same height and location and look out at Independence Hall with the same view that Washington beheld. I would love to add the bronze sculptures from Howard+Revis. I would have Martha standing at the entrance to the stairs. I would move Washington at his desk up to his office (see above). I would have John and Abigail sitting in the Family Dining Room. I'm not a big fan of John Adams, but I do love Abigail, and I do find their relationship remarkable and worth commemorating. I would also like to see a statue of Washington at the bow window.

I thought the strongest element of Davis Buckley was the text on the pillars. I would like to see those somehow folded into the design merge.

The other two designs, both very conceptual, obviously would make a compelling experience, but I fear they make it difficult to picture a physical building in which the executive branch was defined, where real people lived, and where the struggle over slavery and freedom was played out with names, personalities, and stories we can all relate to.

3:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They should just get BCJ to design the memorial, so it will be deferent and complimentary to the bell building. The mall does not need to be littered with trinkets of historical aims to be better than that.

10:42 PM  
Blogger act-ex said...

I think the designs have a long way to go before they are viable functionally and symbolically on Independence Mall. I was also struck by the rather weak presentation quality of the models and images. I would have expected better for a high profile memorial like this.

7:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found most of the designs to have merits as well as flaws...
the emphasis on the people taht lived there as oppsosed to the structure is what struck me.

5:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

All five finalists appear to lack both detail and rigor. The weakness of the finalists is a said statement about how Philadephia architects see such a great opportunity to build upon 'sacred' ground.

Half of the exhibits appear as though they might just as well be pavilions in the King of Prussia mall.

7:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After viewing all five finalists, all i can say is good's exactly what i expected from the philadelphia design community. Why does there seem to be an overwhelming need to post modernize the memorials with pieces house and trinkets of history projected around the corner in a vomit-like fashion. Why is there a need to 'recreate the house' Venturi did it already, quite well...let's move beyond. Why are philadelphia architects incapable of producing a simple clean, clear, modern memorial? Do we need to call maya lin in for a lesson?

8:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Try this City of Philadelphia website for better quality images of all the designs --

6:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was not a Philadelphia-only project. The competition was publicized nationally. The five finalists include Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C. principals.

3:21 PM  
Blogger rasphila said...

For what it's worth, at this late date (September 8), I posted the following feedback on the design competition contact page:

"All of the proposed designs for the President's House memorial are too elaborate. Some come very close to being overbearing. The problem is that this memorial should be a quiet place for reflection, not a museum or a sculpture site. The design that comes closest to achieving this is the Howard+Revis proposal, but it suffers from large and obtrusive "educational" walls.

"Why not a simple pavilion with two small sculptures, one symbolizing the Washington and Adams government and the other symbolizing the slaves? A few benches would provide seating for those who wished to reflect, and a simple historial marker could explain the background. You don't need to hit people over the head with the implications of a Presidential house with slave quarters; they will easily draw their own conclusions and see the contradiction.

"I say, keep it simple. Simplicity is far more difficult to achieve than complexity, and far more satisfying and meaningful in the long run."

9:15 AM  

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