Work is under way on a $5.1 million exhibit that will depict the dual lives of the first two U.S. presidents and their slaves.
The President’s House project is planned for the southeast corner of 6th and Market streets, just a few feet from the Liberty Bell Center, on Independence Mall. The controversial exhibit will include a depiction of the lives of nine slaves that lived at the site, which was used from 1790 to 1800 and was the home of George Washington and then John Adams.
The exhibit is expected to be unveiled early next year — about six months behind the original estimate of a July Fourth opening. An official groundbreaking occurred Wednesday.
“We are one huge step closer to fulfilling an obligation to tell the truth — the whole, complicated truth — about this small parcel of land on the doorstep of the Liberty Bell Center,” Mayor John F. Street said.
Kelly/Maiello Architects and Planners, which is at 1420 Walnut St. in Center City, was picked to design the project. The design calls for a depiction of the Colonial-era house that would include incomplete walls, or “architectural fragments, around the original President’s House footprint, in order to establish a powerful, historically accurate sense of place,” the firm said.
The slave quarters will be defined in a “solemn manner.” State-of-the-art audio and interactive visual technology will tell a series of compelling stories of life in the President’s House. The original house was demolished in the 1830s.
Kelly/Maiello, a minority-owned firm, has done design work for the Philadelphia International Airport, Philadelphia School District, City Hall and other sites. The selection is pending final approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation which is managing federal funds appropriated for the project.
Five architecture-and-design firms, including firms in Boston and Washington, D.C., made bids to build the President’s House exhibit on Independence Mall.
About $5.1 million has been committed, including $1.5 million from the city and $3.6 million from the federal government.
The Kelly/Maiello team will handle all phases of the project, including architectural design, content development, fabrication and installation. It will work closely with historians familiar with the site.
The site, which will include exhibits about slaves that lived in the house, will lead up to the entrance of the Liberty Bell Center. In fact, it was during the excavation of that site that some of the evidence was uncovered.
Controversy over the President’s House has raged since January 2002 when historian Edward Lawler Jr. first published findings indicating that slaves lived in it.
The exhibit will be part of about $400 million in investments on Independence Mall, including the Independence Visitor Center (opened in 2001), Liberty Bell Center (2003), the National Constitution Center (2003) and planned National Museum of American Jewish History, which will start construction this year at 5th and Market streets.
This article is reprinted with permission from the Philadelphia Business Journal. You can visit the PBJ online.
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