By Kellie Patrick Gates
The President’s House Commemorative Site – which will showcase both the long-gone home where Presidents Washington and Adams lived, and the quarters where Washington’s slaves stayed – is expected to open in the fall of 2010, thanks to a $3.5 million grant from the Delaware River Port Authority.
Gov. Ed Rendell announced Wednesday that Friday he will recommend to a DRPA committee that the grant be given. The recommendation will be made via his representative on the DRPA board, Chairman Designee John Estey.
The recommendation is expected to reach – and pass – the full DRPA board next month, Rendell said at a press conference across the street from the site at the Independence Visitors Center.
“It certainly will tell the story of achievement,” Rendell said of the project. “This is where the first two American presidents lived and worked. But it is also a story of infamy. At the same time we were declaring that all men are created equal, the president had nine slaves living here.”
George Washington and John Adams resided in the house from 1790 until 1800. Foundation remnants from slave quarters were unearthed during an archaeological dig at the site in 2007, and they have been incorporated into the final design. The project has been a long time coming, said Cynthia MacLeod, superintendent of Independence National Historical Park. “Maybe 10 years ago, we at the National Park Service may have been reluctant” to include the story of the nine slaves in the historic site. “Now, we can’t imagine it without it. The National Park Service understands the importance of telling the whole story – not just what was already in the history books.”
Architect Emmanuel Kelly, principal of winning design firm Kelly/Maiello, said excavation will start sometime this spring. Kelly said that a glass enclosure will allow visitors to look down onto the remnants.
Mayor Michael Nutter and former mayor John Street agreed that the project is important to the nation because it will help fill in a missing piece of American history. And, they said, the tourists who will come to Philadelphia to see it will provide an economic boost for the city.
“It has the capacity to draw millions,” Street said. “And we really need to bring people here.”
Street credited the work of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition with inspiring his involvement in the project. Coalition founding member Michael Coard commended Rendell for recommending the Port Authority spend money on the project.
After the press conference, Coard talked about visiting the Liberty Bell as a student. The white kids were all excited about the history, he said, but to him and other black kids, the best part was a day away from the classroom. That won’t be the case once the Presidents House is finished, he said, because exhibits will teach all Americans about the contributions black people made in the early days of the country.
Coard also found it fitting that funding for the project is about to be secured just as the nation’s first African American President was inaugurated.
Nutter said he has asked Barack Obama to be in Philadelphia for the opening of the Presidents House – and also to come to the city to celebrate his first Independence Day as president.
He does not know yet whether the President will accept the invitations. “You know they have taken his Blackberry away,” Nutter said, adding that he will be talking to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel about it.
According to a release given out at the event, the city has already dedicated $3 million in funds for the project, the federal government pledged $3.6 million and a 2008 fundraiser yielded $200,000 from corporate donors. Rendell said the overall cost of the project is expected to be $8.5 million, and there is also a goal of setting aside $2.5 million for an endowment to keep the Presidents House going.
Rendell emphasized that the $3.5 million he wants the Port Authority to dedicate is not coming from recent toll hikes, but from money that was slated for economic development projects in the 1990s, but was never spent. Some money from the same pot has already gone to projects on the Chester riverfront, Rendell said.
Estey – the man who will make the recommendation on behalf of Rendell – is also the one who suggested the money be used for President’s House, Rendell said.
In addition to his work at the Port Authority, Estey is Chairman of the Board of the Visitor’s Center Corporation.
When the remnants of the slaves’ quarters were open for the public to visit, Estey saw throngs of visitors coming to see them, and many of them were African Americans.
“It became clear this was not an asset we could ignore,” he said.
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