Often, the National Park Service gets things right. Sometimes it gets them very wrong. The recently opened “re-imagining” of the President’s House in Philadelphia is one of the wrong ones.
In November 1790, President George Washington and his family moved into the two-story brick house Congress has rented for them from financier Robert Morris. It was near where Congress would meet, now that the government was moving from New York City. (It moved again in 1800, to Washington, D.C.)
In this house the executive branch of the nation’s government took shape. Washington met with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton and other cabinet members, issues were thrashed out and levies held — receptions in which the president would be accessible to the people. Sensitive to the need to appear to be composed at such times, this tall, august man had a bow window installed in the state dining room so he could create the right impression by standing with his back to the light when greeting guests.
The building was razed in 1832 and in the 1950s the area was cleared for the creation of Independence Mall. No one seemed to know the precise location of the house until an amateur historian, Edward Lawler, Jr., published the results of his intensive sleuth work and pinpointed its location. This was in 2002 and the National Park Service was then beginning to plan a redesign for the Independence National Historic Park. Lawler had also discovered where Washington had housed his stablehands, most of whom were slaves. It was within feet of the new Liberty Bell Center.
The NPS could have made a replica of the President’s House. This has been done in many places, Williamsburg, Virginia being the most prominent. Historic replicas are out of fashion these days, however. Instead they hired an architectural firm and historian Gary Nash to conjure up an abstraction. Nash is a member of the Revisionist School of American History. In 1994 he was hired by the National Endowment for the Humanities to draft new national standards for the teaching of American history. His view of the nation’s founders was that they were all oppressive, hypocritical and interested largely in advancing their own economic interests. His “product” was so egregiously negative that the worse parts were excised two years later.
The architect concocted a neo-ruin of a colonial building. It has four brick-clad walls with three tall pillars, several window frames and a doorframe, but nothing above them. There is nothing inspiring or even thought provoking about this open-to-the-sky structure. It does not even conform to the dimensions of the actual building’s measurements.
Inside, the flat surfaces display a surfeit of interpretive panels and videos. None describe the achievements of the first president and the government. The concentration is on race relations and mistakes made (clear in hindsight), such as Washington signing the Fugitive Slave Act and John Adams signing the Alien & Sedition Acts.
The fact that there were slaves in Washington’s household in Philadelphia is worth pointing out, but so are Washington’s political skill, determination and personal modesty. Nash may have thought he was offering what he has calls “multi-layered, multi-faceted social history,” but he has given us a one-dimensional and negative view of what was, in fact, the beginning of a socio-political miracle, a successful, durable republican government.
The bending-over-backwards quality of the presentation can be attributed in part to a local black activist group which relentlessly lobbied the National Park Service to “honor, primarily, the nine enslaved African descendants.” They were part of the story, of course, but only part of it.
Mount Vernon, Washington’s Virginia home, has a Slave Memorial, an annual ceremony honoring the slaves and a support group made up mainly of descendants of Washington’s slaves who work closely with the Mount Vernon staff to make sure this aspect of Mount Vernon is well represented. It is, and so are all the other aspects of the place. The result is that the visitor gets a “multi-faceted” impression.
Not so at the “re-imagined” President’s House. The architects got an abstract original, no matter how unattractive; Nash got to portray the nation and its leaders in a dark light; and the pressure group got what it wanted.
Mr. Hannaford is a former member of the Mount Vernon Advisory Board.