Case Study: The President’s House

President's House Site

An outdoor exhibit and memorial opened on the site of the President’s House in 2010, after almost a decade of struggle. (M. Kennedy for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation)

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]

Learn more about the Independence Hall Association.

Optional related document:

Read the General Management Plan for Independence National Historical Park (1997) (PDF)


Pennsylvania Magazine of HIstory and Biography2. Research (2002)

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]

 


From the 1960s through the 1990s, a women's restroom structure stood on the site of the President's House. A wayside marker described the significance of the site for the executive branch of government, but it did not mention slavery.

From the 1960s through the 1990s, a women’s restroom structure stood on the site of the President’s House. A wayside marker described the significance of the site for the executive branch of government, but it did not mention slavery.

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]

Learn more about the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition.

 


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?

  • As the Liberty Bell Center opened in 2003, protests continued the pressure to mark the adjacent site of the President's House with a memorial to the enslaved Africans in George Washington's household.

    As the Liberty Bell Center opened in 2003, protests continued the pressure to mark the adjacent site of the President’s House with a memorial to the enslaved Africans in George Washington’s household.

    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]

Learn more about the Ad-Hoc Historians.

Read the National Park Service Director’s Order on Civic Engagement and Public Involvement (2003; renewed 2007).


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]

Learn more about The Roz Group.

Learn more about Kelly/Miaello Architects and Planners.


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?

 


9. Reflection

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?


10. Postscripts

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.

 



14 Comments

  1. […] me to extend beyond the original content of the book.  For example, it hosts a step-by-step case study of the President’s House site in Philadelphia, which after the book’s publication became a matter of controversy related […]

    • Anila Ramsarran says:

      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?

      I think this topic is very interesting along with the role of public historians in general. Yes, the President’s House is very important in American history but it also involves slave culture. I think it is important to include both histories since they are both American history. Not all history needs to be repeated or glorified but I do think that it needs to be remembered to teach a lesson. This case is important because it is very relevant to social and public history issues in the present news. Public historians are dealing with the same choices in regards to confederate monuments.

      As I just said, I don’t think we need this step much in the future – public historians can use this case study as an example today. There are a lot of opinions and view points in these cases and it is hard to please everyone. I think all histories need to be represented unbiasedly.

      Anila

  2. Jessica Proctor says:

    9. Reflection

    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?

    There are a variety of lessons and aspects the President’s House Case can offer to Public Historians.

    One of the first lessons is that Historical Truth needs to come out and should not be covered up. This will only complicate things for future generations when digging up the past. One can say however that History is oftern rediscoverd as time goes on and this must be takin into consideration. Included in covering history up or ignoring a certain aspect of it, is also not being swayed by pasts assumptions or beliefs which have been passed down through generations. In depth research and discovery must be a priorty.

    Another lesson is that what one group may envision as the end result of a public history site or project may not be what another group envisions. There are different interpretations to history. Along with the interpretations, public historians still must be able to guide the groups involved in the project to accuracy and what is truth. While their may be different view points and those should be displayed and included, an overarching theme should be objectiveness in the material presented

    Openness to the time frame of expected completion date must considered as the shape and scope of the project will most likely change when going through the discovery, planning, and implementaion process. Along with this, the amount of money projected for the project may change and different funding sources, even those not originally sought out, should be considered.

    As the group of public historians allowed different community groups to be involved and have a say in the President’s House Case, so too should other public historians consider this in future projects.

    As Louie Messiah said “History is working progressively for the betterment of society” and that key in public history sites and studies.

  3. Charlene Mires says:

    One of the lessons for me, as a participant in some portions of this project, is that public historians have a vital role to play as the bridge between scholarship and public understanding of American history. Since the 1970s, historians had been writing of the interdependence of liberty and slavery in the early history of the United States. By the time of this project, some 30 years later, this should not have been such a surprise. It should have been easier for us to present an interpretation that included both slavery and the presidency as part of the same American story.

  4. Christian Malatesta says:

    I think the study of the President’s House shows how the truth always comes to light. I feel like a clear mission should be agreed upon before the process begins (What story are we telling? What do we want our audience to know about this space? How does this better our understanding of this site and what happened here?). I agree with Jessica that interpretation is a major part of creating a public history site. History is all about interpretation and what historians choose to focus on. Some people may also have different viewpoints and ideas about a specific historical event or time period. This comes into play with the success of opening a site.

    Artifacts are only going to keep changing. Artifacts found from hundreds of years ago are going to be extremely different from artifacts future generations will marvel at within the next hundred or so years. I feel like the President’s House case study also teaches us that keeping records is vital to future historians. There was so much confusion of the layout of the house and the changing layouts after the original demolition. It appears to everyone working on the outside that the qualified people don’t know what they’re doing or how to handle the information. Documentation is key in the public historian universe.

  5. Travers Turmelle says:

    One of the most important lessons the Presidents House has to offer to public historians is that people react differently to history depending on their social and cultural background. A seemingly straightforward simple fact, image or idea can be disturbing or even offensive to certain people. This needs to be remembered so when history is presented to the public in the forms of exhibits, memorials, and monuments it can be shown in a way that gives an accurate portrayal while at the same time being sympathetic to the varying views of the guests that will visit the site.
    When developing a site public historians should be active in both the communities that the site is representing and in the community that the site will be residing in throughout the process of planning and construction. Doing this will make public historians available to hear the thoughts and views of their site clientele and controversies such as the ones that were part of the President’s House development can be avoided.

  6. Mike Hood says:

    Of the many individual “lessons” to perhaps be learned from this protracted and fractious process, the one that resonates with me is “make very, very sure you’ve at least acknowledged as many potential stakeholders as possible before embarking on something like this”. Could there possibly be a more divisive and uncomfortable topic in American History than the cognitive dissonance of a freedom loving country that has almost 300 hundred years of slavery in it’s history? The list of people who would care about any of the particular histories at play here is, as we have seen, legion. As onerous and protracted as a thorough process of allowing all stakeholders to present their views would have been, it might have saved most of the acrimonious back and forth. I do wonder what else Public Historian professionals could have done to help “show the way” once the ball got rolling. By the time the story grew legs, there were already at least two groups with their backs up. What could reasonably-minded history professionals have done that they didn’t at least attempt to do? What a mess, and yet, in the end, we are probably all a little wiser for having lived through, participated in or spectated this process.

  7. Melissa Callahan says:

    I think that one of the most important lessons the President’s House has to offer public historians is the simple fact that it will be impossible to make everyone happy. The public historian must be prepared to face criticism at every turn. Moreover, the public historian should never become too attached to a particular vision. The highly politicized nature of public history projects demands flexibility and compromise. It may also mean that accuracy will be sacrificed on the altar of “collective memory.”

  8. David N says:

    What strikes me most, in this whole endeavor, is the inability of effective public history to be undertaken in design by committee. The President’s House site is a confusing array of perspectives and narratives which does little to elucidate anything particularly effectively about presidents Washington or Adams, the nine people kept enslaved by Washington at the site, or the conflicts and ironies inherent to the early Republic’s struggles with slavery in a nation ostensibly founded under the “self-evident” principle that “all men are created equal.”

    Instead, there’s the outline with a house, without any indication about what the shape and layout of the house has to tell us about the lives of the people who lived there. On the walls of the ghostly outline of a once-house, narratives are told of enslaved people who did or did not escape from bondage without any clear indication of why that story is essential to understanding the house, or, indeed, why the story must be told at the site of the house. To make matters worse, occasional blips of political narrative, little of which seems to coherently fit with rest of the site’s interpretive panels, sporadically appear between tales of Oney Judge and Hercules.

    Ironically, given that compromise was at the heart of the American republican experiment’s success, compromise is what has largely plagued the President’s House site. Just as a jack of all trades is master of none, the lack of coherent direction to the President’s House interpretive plan is largely due to the political need of those who laid it out to tell every story. The interpretation is plagued by the pervasive imperative to make everyone happy; an impossible goal, considering that American history is often times far from being a happy story.

    Ultimately, one is left with a question laden with yet more irony: Can the work of history, especially public history, be done in a democratic fashion? Can “We the People” determine what happened, what matters, and how to describe it?

  9. Brittney Ingersoll says:

    What struck me about the President’s House case was the struggle of history and the struggle of democratically trying to portray a truth that identified with everyone’s truth. I thought the idea of seeing the President’s house and hearing it being called the President’s house made one think it would just entail information about George Washington but instead his history seemed to be symbolized by the walls of the house. And within the house was the history of his slaves and those who ran the house and delegates who passed through working with Washington. It made the visitors aware of a history they may or may not have known existed, along with adding a deeper depth into the home of Washington. It also gave his slaves a voice that would not have been heard otherwise. This highly politicized case shows that together public historians have to be able to work together not for their own agenda but to showcase a clear and precise history as well as all the characters involved.

  10. Rachel Craft says:

    This case is particularly useful for public historians to understand the obstacles that can be met with the need to tell what they deem to be the truth at historic sites. As exhibited with the President’s House case, public historians need to be ready for public and institutional backlash when they determine that truth needs to be added to the public’s understanding of a site. For the President’s House, even the National Park Service was unprepared for telling the truth about slavery at a location that symbolizes freedom in the United States. Obstacles regarding financing the construction, interpreting the site correctly, and claims of a lack of sources were some of the ways the NPS blocked the progress of the revealing truth regarding the site. On the other hand, public historians should also be aware of the enormous public support that can be raised surrounding the controversy of telling the truth. Various groups and organizations of not only professionals, but citizens who identified with the history of the President’s House made their presence known and advocated on behalf of the truth. Public historians’ understanding of the obstacles they may face, as well as the resources they have at their disposal in the public, can help them better gauge how telling the truth about a site will progress and be received by the public.

  11. For me, the most valuable lessons from the President’s House case were the necessity of civic engagement, the media’s power, and the importance of coalition building. I find the case strikingly similar to that of the Enola Gay exhibit. In both situations, different groups of stakeholders had divergent positions on the interpretation of history–commemoration/celebration vs. (what I would call) complex and mature thought. In both cases, coalitions that were not staff of the site or members of the original interpretation team voiced vociferous opposition to the proposed plans. And in both cases, media attention helped to keep the controversy alive. The main difference between the two cases I see is that at the President’s House site, the public (i.e., African Americans in Philadelphia, academic historians, and to some extent, Lawler, the untrained historian who just had a passion for correcting the story of the house) wanted the more complex interpretation of the site while NPS (at first) and Independence Hall National Historic Park wanted to celebrate the legacy of liberty without the confusion of slavery.

    Civic engagement might have saved years of headaches for NPS at the President’s House site, but I’m not sure. I think of Martha Aikens’ letter to the Independence Hall Association in 2001. The IHA didn’t bring up Washington’s enslaved people when they requested that the executive branch of government be recognized on the site, and had Aikens accepted their proposal and their funding, perhaps no one would have said anything at all. Once Gary Nash spoke to WHYY and wrote his op-ed in the Inquirer, though, there was ignoring the issue. Unlike in the case of the Enola Gay, Nash and supporters of the more complex view of history were able to push forward because they controlled the narrative by getting their story to the media first and because they made a plan of counterattack early. Academic historians did not sit on the sidelines and wait for the controversy to die down; they had learned from the Enola Gay fiasco and asserted the necessity to have themselves at the table.

    I guess a more apropos lesson would be to know the public you are serving. True, the Liberty Bell is a tourist attraction, but it’s an attraction in a city that was (is?) 50 percent African American, had and still has an African American museum just one block away from the Liberty Bell Center site, and has an active African American cultural presence. Did no one think that in a city like that, ignoring African Americans’ contributions to the first First Families would be a problem?

  12. Amy Osterhout says:

    9. Reflection

    The President’s House presented public historians with a unique opportunity to highlight the importance of the executive branch’s role in Philadelphia while also addressing the role that slavery played in early America. However, the public historians involved were not prepared for the public, academic, and professional reaction and backlash to the House plans. The President’s House works both as a cautionary tale for future historians and as an example of a site that can emphasize both the famous, well-known histories and the showcase histories that could have previously been glossed over.

    The President’s House offered many different avenues of interpretation, but in the end the route that the committees took was a decent one. They managed to balance the important roles that Washington and Adams played without glorifying (or excusing, or ignoring) their slave-owning lifestyle. In addition, they gave the slaves of the house a voice and showcased their narratives to be just as important as the lives of the presidents. However, the path that lead to the final product was muddled with multiple groups with differing interpretations. Future historians should take caution in how influential public opinion can be on a project (and, in the case of the President’s House, be open and inclusionary about who has a say in the interpretation of a site). Public historians must not ignore the voices of surrounding communities who wish to have input about how a historic site should be presented, but they must also shoulder the responsibility of presenting the site accurately and fairly. It is a fine line for historians to walk and, as shown by the President’s House case study, is not always a clear-cut process.

  13. McKenna Britton says:

    So very many lessons can be learned from this case study, especially those surrounding controversial topics in history and the varying perspectives adopted by individuals. The historians involved in this study can be learned from, as the controversies that resulted from the President’s House plans play a factor in this case study acting as a tale of caution. Public historians, and future historians, must know that their role in presenting history to a public is one of mediation, as well as authority – it is our job to be responsive to the opinion of the public, and to do our best in interpreting the history of a person, place, event, or object in the way it is meant to be interpreted. We are not to choose one history over another, though, simply because the former seems less likely to spark a fire of controversy; rather, we must learn the same things that the historians involved in the President’s House planning that, in many cases, we will have to balance two separate histories. It is our duty to figure out the most efficient ways to do this. The interpretation and presentation of history to the public is not always easy; rather, as is seen in the issues of the President’s House plans, it can be quite intense and complex. Our job will never be easy, but we must continue to try our best!

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