Making of the President’s House

Feb. 23

Rendell wants President’s House fast-tracked

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By Kellie Patrick Gates
For PlanPhilly

With more than six years of planning behind them and the funds needed to complete construction and create an endowment now secure, most people involved with the President’s House commemoration project are looking forward to the projected Fall 2010 opening.

Hours after the Delaware Regional Port Authority’s Wednesday vote to earmark $3.5 million for the project, attorney Michael Coard remained jubilant. Coard, who founded the Avenging The Ancestors Coalition in order to be sure the project included the stories of the enslaved Africans who lived at the house, called it “a gigantic leap toward making history in America.”

Foundation work is set to start this spring. Getting to that point was not a simple process, largely because the stories the memorial will tell about this nation’s first two presidents and the nine Africans who George Washington held captive, mean so much to so many.

One prominent preservationist who advised the President’s House Oversight Committee, believes a wrong decision made at a critical juncture in the process – the discovery of actual, physical remnants of the old mansion – will leave Philadelphia with a monument that is not as powerful as it could or should be.

At that point, said University of Pennsylvania architecture professor Frank Matero, the design phase of the project should have returned to square one by re-opening the design competition, and a new winner should have been selected by the public.

“Philadelphia could have been on the map for this, the way it was for Franklin Court,” Matero said. “I think we blew it on this. I think we missed it.”

Matero, who is chair of Penn’s Historic Preservation Program, said that good design should be “a visual dialogue” and in this case, the original foundations, the new interpretive center, and the structures that already exist on The Mall should be in conversation with each other. The foundations had not been discovered when Kelly/Maiello drew up the original design. And because they were added in “as an afterthought” they are not part of the current design’s visual dialogue, Matero said. “The remains should be the thing that lead. In this case, they follow,” he said. “That’s why I think it’s so dead.”

The majority of the Presidents House Oversight Committee and the other experts brought in after the foundations were discovered disagreed with Matero. The original design was not scrapped. The President’s House Advisory Council chose from among a group of alternative options submitted by Kelly/Maiello. The current design makes only small changes to the original design, but adds to it a glass viewing structure that will allow visitors to look down into the ground at some of the foundation remains.

Coard said he never considered a return to the drawing board because the original design “was just too good” to lose.

Some officials at Independence National Historical Park – where the President’s House commemoration will stand – did consider whether a redesign was necessary, said Jane Cowley, Park spokeswoman. But they did not mull that option for long, she said. “One thing that really jumped out was that including the archaeological remains into the design we had already would really add to the design – it was not something that would subtract from it, but something that complemented it.”

Was the cost of starting over part of the decision? “Obviously, cost is always a consideration,” Cowley said. But money aside, the amended design works, she said.

“The project was already under contract as the result of a thorough selection process,” said project manager Rosalyn J. McPherson, president of the ROZ Group. “Fortunately, Kelly/Maiello’s design concept was flexible enough to incorporate the discovery. There was no reason to go back to square one.”

The physical portion of the Maiello/Kelly design creates a sense of the former house with partial walls and windows – including the famous bow window – fireplaces with tall chimneys, and a staircase that hints at the home’s second floor. Visitors will walk across a floor plan of the former structure, and an enclosed space would allow visitors a sense of the crowded quarters where the enslaved slept.

Archaeologists came across the foundations during a dig from March through July of 2007. Under ground next to the Liberty Bell pavilion lay the arch of the bow window whose shape is thought to be the inspiration for the oval office. And there also were the walls that held the kitchen where enslaved Africans worked, and an underground passage through which they likely traveled in getting from the kitchen to the main house.

Matero saw the original design as a created ruin, constructed to give visitors a sense of place when there was no tangible evidence of the house that once stood there.

But once actual ruins were found, he said, the design no longer made sense. The dig revealed the juxtaposition of the fancy house where Washington worked on solidifying a new nation founded on freedom and the places where nine people labored in slavery.

The foundations are so powerful and so significant to the story that the city should have re-opened the design competition. “They should have been the generator of form,” Matero said.

“What better evidence could you have than those two spaces coming together and touching, literally, those two worlds touching?” Matero asks. And being right next to the Liberty Bell? “I can’t think of a more powerful coincidence,” he said.

Matero recently declined an opportunity to oversee the preservation of the ruins as a Park Service consultant. He labored over the decision, deciding to say no so that he could speak his mind about the design.

Why didn’t he speak out earlier, before the process moved to this point? “No one wanted to rain on the parade,” he said, acknowledging that it is likely too late for his concerns to lead to any changes now.

It’s hard to find a person who doesn’t agree with Matero on the significance of the site, and the power of its contradictions. “There’s no place where black slavery and white freedom stood side by side in such glaring contrast,” Coard said.

It’s only in the “how to” present that dichotomy where there is disasgreement.

The President’s House project has always had its share of debate – some of it quite heated. During the 2002 construction of the Liberty Bell Center, historians and the public began to demand that the President’s House site be marked and that the memorial include stories of the lives of the enslaved Africans in President Washington’s household.

At first, Independence National Historical Park wanted to focus only on the Liberty Bell. But in 2003, consensus was reached that the site would commemorate not only the 10-year stretch when America’s first two presidents lived in Philadelphia, but also those of the nine enslaved Africans that Washington owned. At last month’s press conference announcing that the Port Authority was considering the grant, INHP Superintendent Cynthia MacLeod said she could not imagine the commemoration without the stories of the Africans.

When the Oversight Committee, convened in 2005, was searching for an architect to design President’s House, the 21 applicants were instructed to tell the stories of everyone who lived there. The designs also had to teach visitors about the executive branch of the U.S. government, the systems and methods of slavery and the free black population of Philadelphia.

In 2006, the committee chose the design by Philadelphia architects Kelly/Maiello from those of six semi-finalists from Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

The next year, with the archaeological findings unearthed, debate began anew. There was disagreement about how – or even if – to include them in the President’s House design.

It was hard to miss the enthusiasm people had for the uncovered foundations. About 300,000 visitors came to the site to look down into what was essentially a large hole in the ground and talk to the archaeologists about what they found.

But would the physical remains get in the way of the stories? Or were they the most powerful story teller of all?

That’s when a new team of advisors – including Matero – was added to the mix to help determine what should be done with the foundations. A charrette was held in July 2007.

Matero says he knew even at that gathering that he held the minority opinion. One other advisor stood with him, Matero said. Repeated attempts by PlanPhilly to reach that person for comment went unanswered.

Another member of the new advisory team, Fath Davis Ruffins, curator of African American history and culture at the Smithsonian Institute, said in a recent interview that the discovered foundations are “significant emotional and physical signs” of the past. But are “rather small, and rather hard to see.” She noted there were no human remains found, unlike another project where she consulted – the African burial ground discovered on Manhattan with 391 sets of remains, or former plantations where objects that were used by enslaved people were found.

“Having these foundations gives it some pride of place, it shows that this place was there,” she said. “But for most people, they would not be able to visualize what this house would have looked like (based on the foundations). The current design gives you a floor plan of the house to help people … and some information about the original building,” Ruffins said. “This site by itself doesn’t have the full richness of larger story.”

Ruffins said her expertise does not extend to architecture, though. “I’m not an architectural critic, and Frank may have legitimate concerns from an architectural point of view.”

Philadelphia’s prominent architecture critic, the Inquirer’s Inga Saffron, took a similar position to Matero’s in a July 2007 on her blog Skyline Online.

“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,” she wrote. “… 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.”

Matero doesn’t blame Kelly/Maiello principal Emanuel Kelly for what he sees as a mistake – he blames the Oversite Committee and the city. During a recent interview at his Center City office, Kelly matter-of-factly acknowledged the criticism of both Matero and Saffron. But it’s very clear he’s proud of his work – and very pleased to be the architect who designed the commemoration of a point in history where freedom and slavery were slammed together.

Usually architects design contemporary buildings that “don’t have as much impact on lives in terms of historical significance,” Kelly said. “Usually we are trying to make context. Here, we’re resurrecting context. It was a neat experience for me as an architect.”

At the request of the Oversight Committee, Kelly came up with strategies for five different alternatives. They ranged from keeping his original design as it was, to putting all of the foundations on display in a glass enclosure that would tie into the Liberty Bell pavilion.

The original estimated cost of the project was $5.1 million, for design and construction. The glass enclosure option was the most expensive, at $11 million, Kelly said. The chosen alternative, with a portion of the foundations under climate-controlled glass that allows visitors to look down upon the most significant of the ruins from a viewing area, is expected to cost $6.9 million.

The ruins will be 10 to 12 feet below visitors’ feet. Hidden lights will illuminate the foundations to improve visibility. Part of the glass enclosure will follow the shape of the bay window.

To Matero, the glass enclosure feels too isolated from the rest of the design. “There’s a failure to engage the physical remains in a way that’s moving,” he said. “The current design isolates them. (Visitors will be) at a safe distance so they don’t have to feel anything or be engaged.”

But to Kelly, the amended design is an “appropriate balance” that allows access to the ruins, without allowing them to dominate and overshadow the stories of the people that the ruins alone cannot tell.

Kelly said he would have started over if he had been asked, but the design would not have changed very much because there was no call for a change to the goals and objectives – telling the stories of the people and the presidency, creating a structure that was open 24/7, etc.

Kelly said he and his team began their design process by looking at how best to create a scaffolding to tell the stories. A lot of requirements were included in the original RFP, he said. It asked for a floor plan of the structure to be included. “We were the only ones who laid the full floor plan,” he said. “Others did it to quarter scale or even smaller, so people were not walking through it. Our objective was that anyone who came could walk and imagine what the spaces were like.”

The floor plan and the partial walls, windows and other elements are based on historical records, Kelly said. It did not make sense to build a full reproduction of the house, he said, for several reasons: Many of the details of the structure, which was largely destroyed in the 1820s, are not known. The cost would have increased exponentially. And the directives given to all of the architects who competed to design the structure clearly said it was to be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. A replica house would have required personnel around the clock to keep vandals at bay and visitors safe, he said.

The structure has no second floor, but it has a stairway to give the sense of one, Kelly said.

The structure has fireplaces and chimneys in the living room and kitchen. The fireplaces are not as tall as in the original version, Kelly said, because the foundation remains help provide an anchor and a sense of place.

The fireplaces provide focal points and gathering spots similarly to the way the actual fireplaces did in the original house, Kelly said. Instead of a fire, the tour groups and teachers and students who stop at the fireplaces will see large video screens, upon which the stories of the Adamses and Washingtons and the enslaved will be portrayed in short films.

Matero isn’t crazy about the screens. “The design relies way too much on multi-media. Design is not predominantly about words and images,” he said.

Coard thinks the multi-media aspects will appeal to younger visitors. Cowley said the design is accessible to everyone – young, old, sighted or blind, deaf or hearing.

The scripts are still being written. But in the living room, visitors might hear George Washington talk about the pressures of leading the new nation, or Martha Washington talk about domestic life at Philadelphia’s presidential residence. In the areas where the enslaved Africans spent most of their time, they might hear and see Hercules, Washington’s talented cook, who escaped to freedom. As did Oney Judge, servant to Martha Washington. Judge ran away after she learned that Martha was going to give her away as a wedding present.

Some stories about Hercules will likely emerge from his dealings with the free Africans living in Philadelphia, Kelly said. “Hercules was such a great chef that he gained financial rewards. He would spend his money, likely interacting with free Africans.”

Nearby areas were home to both working class and middle class blacks, some of whom own large homes on Spruce Street, Kelly said.

Kelly is still working on some of the details about the slave quarters – a part of the design that Matero finds powerful.

The small room will be transparent. Upon its walls will be etched the names of the African tribes from which enslaved people were taken, Kelly said, and perhaps the evolution that some of their names took, from African to Christian.

Kelly is certain that visitors will be able to step inside and get a glimpse of the crowded, uncomfortable conditions the enslaved Africans endured. “They can get in that tiny room an intimate sense of what it felt like to be one of four people sleeping in there,” he said.

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