Commentary Magazine


This Old (Presidential) House

Generations of schoolchildren once learned that George Washington was the Father of the Country—a platitude, of course, but one that encapsulated an essential truth. Now an exhibition on the site in Philadelphia where he lived during his presidency will concentrate on his role as a slave-owner. This too is a truth, a tragic one that requires telling. But is this the central truth about our first President—that he hypocritically spoke of liberty while enslaving others?

This question has become urgent with the rediscovery of the first President’s house, where Washington (and later John Adams) lived between 1790 and 1800, when Philadelphia served as the country’s capital. The house was demolished in the early 19th century, leaving behind only a few print images, and its precise form and location became a matter of historical controversy. This was recently settled, and in spectacular fashion, by Edward Lawler, Jr.—not a professional historian but a singer. (Full disclosure: I knew Lawler in graduate school in the early 1980’s.)

Working systematically through original documents, Lawler disentangled two centuries of pious historiography to pinpoint the site of the house with forensic exactitude. His work made possible this year’s excavation, which has brought to light a surprising amount of the original house; it is easily the most important archaeological find for American history in a generation.

Finding the house was easy, however, compared to figuring out how to present it to the public. Designed by the Philadelphia firm Kelly/Maiello, the new museum that will rise over the foundations of the original house is an unfortunate object, both didactically and architecturally. The original executive mansion consisted of a front house on Market Street, a back building with servants’ quarters and a kitchen, and a stable to the rear. In a tiny wing connecting this stable to the back building lived Washington’s slaves. It is the physical remains of these slave quarters that dominate the museum’s educational program, whose six “substantive themes” are:

The House and the People Who Lived There; The Executive Branch of the U.S. Government; The System and Methods of Slavery; African-American Philadelphia, especially Free African-American; The Move to Freedom; and History Lost and Found.

One notes that Washington himself will not be a “substantive” presence in his house, other than as one of the “people who lived there.” The result will be, in effect, a museum of American slavery.

The issue of architectural merit may, perhaps, pale beside the larger questions this new museum raises. Still, it should be noted that the proposed design of the new visitors’ center is comically inept. Several generations ago, Americans celebrated their historical buildings by contriving plausible facsimiles (as at Colonial Williamsburg). Recently, Robert Venturi suggested a more imaginative approach when he reconstructed the lost Benjamin Franklin House—of which no contemporary images survived—as an abstract and ghostly lattice. The Kelly/Maiello design is an unhappy conflation of the two, a plaintively literal array of classical pediments hanging in the air that manages to starve both the eye and the imagination at the same time—no mean feat.