Philadelphia's President's House is Still an Embarrassment

The President’s House That’s Not a President’s House

President’s Day, 2010, brought considerable attention to newly opened Philadelphia’s President’s House at 5th and Market Streets. Much of the attention focused on the positive aspects of the site of the original White House. No mention was made of the controversy that erupted when the new house was designed and built. While it’s true that most people will, over time, forget specific criticisms concerning the design of the house, those criticisms will not disappear from the record. I find it hard to pass the President’s House without shaking my head and thinking, “What a disaster, a perfect example of a building designed by committee!”

What do I mean? Not only does the “building” resemble a half constructed modular home but this skeletal tribute to Presidents Washington and Jefferson might also double as a SEPTA subway stop. It’s not a mansion and it’s not a house. The structure’s minimalist frame, while pretending to take smart cues from the (nearby) Robert Venturi-designed Franklin House, is a disaster on all fronts. The 10.5 million dollar design tragedy, which incited an eight year ideological war between the National Park Service and various African American community organizations, could have been a success if political squabbling had taken a back seat to architecture.

But it did not take a back seat. The current President’s House is what happens when ideology trumps architecture and design.

This Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners structure should be laid bare and another architect, like Robert A.M. Stern, brought in to redo the project. Stern, who has designed buildings in the classical tradition for the University of Pennsylvania, is the recent recipient of the 2011 Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture, could at least be counted on to deliver a substantive building that would give Philadelphians and tourists alike a “real” Presidents house.

In 2011, Inquirer columnist Annette John Hall took The New York Times to task for its bad review of the house. The Times found the house to be an “ineffectual mishmash that has reached new lows.” Hall countered that the present site’s focus on slavery is justified because of the slave artifacts found in the building’s foundation. “A narrow little inconvenient truth surfaced as plans were made to build a president's house memorial,” Hall wrote, “Something conveniently omitted from my history books: Washington unapologetically owned more than 300 Africans, nine of whom he shuttled back and forth between his Virginia plantation and his presidential home in Philadelphia.”

Sad but true, but those were slave days when only a few exceptional visionaries abstained from the “sin” of slavery. To judge 18-19th Century behavior by 21st Century standards is both irrational and self righteous.

The present structure with its cluttered, nine open air slave reenactment videos, and grade-school like “teaching” storyboards fastened on the brick and granite walls, is an intellectual embarrassment. Visitors get quick Readers Digest-style sound bites (think elementary school!) about the lives of presidential slaves. That’s pretty much the entire enchilada. Call it the President’s Slaves House, but mixing oil and water like this comes close to false advertising. This is still true today, when critics for the most part have stopped writing about the site. As it is, the only “President” we get is the down under, glass enclosed archeological dig showcasing the foundations of the real house built sometime between 1790 and 1800 (but demolished in 1833). While the framed “dig” works very well as a centerpiece, everything else on the ground floor—the representational door, window and fire place frames of the original house—points to a curious flip flop as the slave narrative dominates and “enslaves” the story of the presidents-- or the evil oppressors in the archeological hole.

That’s h-o-l-e, as in netherworld.

It’s not that the very important story of slavery in Philadelphia shouldn’t be told. Tell it by all means—shout it, memorize it, and preach it from the mountaintop-- but don’t superimpose it onto another story. The design-message of the President’s House seems to be nothing but a judgment of 19th century pro-slavery views by “enlightened” 21st century standards. As a result, the visitor leaves knowing nothing about some of the important people that lived in this house, Benedict Arnold and Robert Morris to name only two.

If the mission of the architects was to cast aspersions on the presidents the house is supposed to honor, then they succeeded in equating the founding fathers in wigs with rabid Klu Kluxers. But the evangelical zeal with which this message is delivered is like getting hit on the head with a hammer. I’m thinking of those “instructive” billboards placed around the house, especially the one entitled “The Dirty Business of Slavery,” which seems to be in the running for the Captain Obvious Award.

We don’t need to be reminded like third graders that slavery was “dirty.” And we certainly don’t need to have this message drummed into our heads as if these billboards were stand-ins for teachers with rulers, ready to “smack” us in case we’re not paying attention.

Philadelphia deserves better.

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