A “new” historic site in Philadelphia

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Philadelphia is a history lover’s dream because so many important history sites are packed into a small central area. I visit the city several times a year and never tire of a stroll past Independence Hall.  My last several trips, I’ve watched a new site in development adjacent to the Liberty Bell pavilion. Part of Independence National Historical Park, the site interprets the location of the President’s House, occupied by the United States’ first two Presidents.  The site opened officially in December 2010.

The building no longer stands and through the course of extensive archaeological work, the foundations were identified.  The Park Service decided to erect partial architectural elements to help visitors imagine the building. They preserved some of the dig site so that a few of the foundations are revealed. While expensive to reconstruct, it’s possible they could have built a house to interpret America’s first “White House.” That was not the point of the their intended interpretation though.

I am a fan of the National Park Service, they usually produce excellent sites. But, they failed miserably this time. Under pressure from various local groups, they seized an opportunity to discuss slavery in the shadow of the icon to freedom, the Liberty Bell. The site’s goal is to interpret the paradox that was a new nation founded on liberty and justice for all with its first president a slaveholder who held nine slaves at the site.

The site’s main interpretive intro panel is hard to find.  After a search, I found what I think could be the introduction. It starts out with “History is not neat. It is complicated and messy. It is about people, places, and events that are both admirable and deplorable. Here at the site of the house where the first two presidents of the United States resided from 1790-1800, this definition comes into stark focus.”

The site’s main story is about the nine enslaved African Americans who served the Washingtons during his Presidency. The interpretation seems forced and a jumble of interpretive panels in different styles attempt to provide a mix of history about the site.  Five or so video screens throughout the site help tell various stories – one slave escaped to New Hampshire with the help of free blacks in the city. Evidence shows that Washington was concerned that their interaction with the free black population would have a detrimental impact and give them ideas of freedom.

While this interpretive point is worthwhile and the site merits preservation, sadly, the effort fails because of no clear label hierarchy, poorly written labels (in some cases a book on the wall), and little effort at balance and subtlety.  My guess is that too many stakeholders forced an interpretation that was written and altered by too many people.

Its prime location offers a prime opportunity to tell an interesting story to the many visitors that pass through the site. I observed many people attempting to find meaning. Unfortunately I could tell that most of them really didn’t understand it and didn’t want to work to figure it out. The official press release describes an official story of the site. In my opinion, it’s a mess.  I tend to agree with this critic.

Have you visited the President’s House site?  What did you think?

official website: http://www.nps.gov/inde/historyculture/the-presidents-house.htm

About Tim

Author, public historian, and consultant. Author site: timgrove.net - My fifth book, Star Spangled: The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem, was published in May 2020. Consulting site: grovehistoryconsulting.com I specialize in exhibition development, interpretive planning, education strategy, and history relevance. I'm passionate about helping history organizations of all sizes and kinds make history more relevant for their communities and the people they engage with. I'm happy to consider many types of writing projects for informal learning organizations. Reach me at tim@grovehistoryconsulting.com or authortimgrove@gmail.com
This entry was posted in 18th century, house, national park, President and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A “new” historic site in Philadelphia

  1. Carolyn says:

    Sadly, because I think the concept is a worthy one, I have to agree. I came on the site from the back–the direction of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall–and if I had not heard about the project I would have been mystified. I never did find the overall explanation, and your pictures of the front of the “building” make more sense than anything I experienced. However, the videos about slavery were well done (though you had to stand while watching them), and the archaeological remains were very interesting. Too many cooks on this project, I fear.

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