The site of the President’s House in Philadelphia, occupied by George Washington and John Adams during their presidencies, is among the most challenging and controversial cases in public history interpretation in recent times. At the heart of the case is the challenge of interpreting the presence of slavery at a site in very close proximity to the Liberty Bell, a widely recognized symbol of freedom. The struggle over how the President’s House site would be commemorated unfolded after publication of Independence Hall in American Memory, but it extends many of the book’s themes. This case study is offered for the benefit of public historians and others who seek a deeper understanding of the process that led to creation of the outdoor exhibit “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation.” It draws primarily from the digital archive about the site created by the Independence Hall Association, a citizens’ group and advocate for marking the site of the President’s House.
1. Request and Response (2001)
The Independence Hall Association, a citizens’ group formed in the 1940s to advocate for creation of Independence National Historical Park, wrote the following letter to the park’s superintendent, Martha Aikens, on August 15, 2001. What were the group’s primary objectives? What can you discern about the group’s previous relationship with the park’s administration? If you were the superintendent receiving this letter, what choices would you have in replying? Which of those choices would be the best option?
- Document: Independence Hall Association to Martha Aikens, August 15, 2001 [link]
On October 11, 2001, Superintendent Aikens replied to the Independence Hall Association. What were her primary objectives? What can you discern about the park’s previous relationship with the Independence Hall Association? If you were a member of the Independence Hall Association receiving this reply, how would you respond?
- Document: Martha Aikens reply to the Independence Hall Association, October 11, 2001 [link]
Optional related document:
Edward Lawler Jr., a member of the Independence Hall Association, published the results of his extensive research about the President’s House in January 2002 in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, the journal of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. What did Lawler seek to achieve in this article? How does the article address the presence of slavery in the President’s House during the Washington administration? What does the article suggest about the aftermath of the earlier exchange of correspondence between the Independence Hall Association and Martha Aikens?
- “The President’s House in Philadelphia: Rediscovery of a Lost Landmark,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (January 2002). [PDF] [HTML]
3. Public Interest (2002)
The President’s House site, particularly its association with slavery, attracted increasing public interest during 2002. Additional interest groups formed to advocate marking the site. Who became involved and why? What role did historians play?
- News coverage, 2002 [link and scroll down to 2002]
4. Response (2002-04)
In response to public interest, Independence National Historical Park organized a process for creating a preliminary design for the President’s House site. When presented at a public meeting at the African American Museum in Philadelphia on January 15, 2003, the preliminary design and the park personnel who presented it were met with sharp and vocal disapproval. Why was this the case? What choices did the park administration make and why? Were there other options? Note the title slide of three faces in the slides prepared for the meeting; what did they communicate to the audience?
Slides of process and preliminary designs presented at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, January 15, 2003 [link]
- News coverage of public meeting [link]
Interest in slavery in the President’s House forced revisions of the exhibits in the Liberty Bell Center, which opened in 2003.
- Read Gary Nash’s account of the controversy and its effects on the Liberty Bell exhibits in “For Whom Will the Liberty Bell Toll: From Controversy to Collaboration,” The George Wright Forum Vol. 21, No. 1 (2004). [link to PDF]
As the project continued, what efforts were made to identify and include stakeholders? What points of agreement could be found, and what remained to be resolved?
- Questions for Discussion by Roundtable (2003) [link]
- Document: Roundtable Consensus (2004) [link]
- Document: Minority Report (2004) [link]
- News coverage of forum and decision to create a memorial to enslaved Africans [link]
5. Funding Sources and Shared Authority (2004-06)
At the dedication of the Liberty Bell Center in 2003, Philadelphia Mayor John F. Street pledged $1.5 million in city funds for the President’s House project. By 2005, the city also assumed management of the project. What funding sources allowed the project to move forward? What stakeholders remained involved and how were their interests reflected in the selection of concept designs and a design-build team? What role did private consultants play in this phase of the project?
- News coverage of funding sources (2005) [link]
- Oversight Committee Appointed (2005) [link]
- Document: President’s House Project Request for Qualifications [link]
- Design Competition: The Semi-Finalists [link]
- Document: Finalist Team for President’s House Selected (press release) [link]
6. Archaeology (2007)
What did the excavation of the President’s House site during the summer of 2007 reveal about public interest and the power of place?
- Document: Kick-Off for President’s House Site Archaeological Dig (press release) [link]
- News Coverage: Dig Yields Some Unexpected Finds [link]
- News Coverage: Controversial Dig Re-Covered [link]
- “Public History at Sites of Protest: Citizenship on the President’s House Viewing Platform,” by Cheryl LaRoche, Cross Ties newsletter of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (Fall 2007) [link to PDF]
- News Coverage: New President’s House Plan to be Unveiled [link]
7. Construction and Interpretation (2008-10)
How and why did the President’s House site remain a matter of controversy even as construction began?
- News Coverage [link and scroll down to 2009-10]
- Document: President’s House Oversight Committee Meets to Resolve Design Controversy (press release) [link to PDF]
- Document: President’s House Exhibit Concepts Under Revision (press release) [link to PDF]
How did proposed interpretive panels and videos address the histories of the presidency and slavery?
- Document: Proposed Exhibit Plan [link]
- Panel Discussion of President’s House videos, “History as Cultural Work” (Swarthmore College, 2011):
8. Site Opening (2010)
Did the result fulfill the high expectations of the public, the City of Philadelphia, and Independence National Historical Park?
- News Coverage: President’s House Opens on Independence Mall [link]
- Press Kit, Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation [link]
- Review by Inga Saffron in The Philadelphia Inquirer [link]
- Review by Edward Rothstein in The New York Times [link]
- President’s House website, Independence National Historical Park [link]
- President’s House website, Independence Hall Association [link]
- President’s House website, City of Philadelphia [link]
- Public responses [link – Archived page, slow to load]
The following video was produced by Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation at the time of the opening of the President’s House site. How do the individuals interviewed recall the project? What opportunities and conflicts were most important to them? How does the video deal with interest in the President’s House as both a site of slavery and the location of the executive branch of government in the 1790s?
What lessons does the President’s House case offer for public historians? How might these be applied to the practice of public history in the future?
“President’s House still a soggy mess,” by Stephan Salisbury, Philadelphia Inquirer, May 22, 2014
“City about to turn over the President’s House,” by Stephan Salisbury, Philadelphia Inquirer, August 18, 2015.