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Monday, 21 February 2011

On Presidents' Day,

President's House Gets No Respect

By Thom Nickels
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
Not only does the newly-opened President's House at 5th and Market streets resemble a half-constructed modular home, but this skeptical tribute to Washington and Jefferson also might double as Septa subway stop. The structure's minimalist frame pretends to take smart cues from the nearby Robert Venturi-designed Franklin House, also off Market Street. But it's really a disaster on all fronts. The $10.5-million design tragedy, which incited an eight-year ideological war between the National Park Service and various black community organizations, could have been a success if political squabbling had taken a back seat to architecture.

This Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners structure should be laid bare. Another firm, like Robert A.M. Stern, should be brought in to redo the project. Stern, the recent recipient of the 201 Driehaus Prize for Classical Architecture, could be at least be counted on to deliver a substitute building that would give Philadephia a 'real' President's House. (Stern is known locally, most recently, for its design of No. 10 Rittenhouse Square).

The present 'house,' with its nine open-air slave reenactment videos and its grade school-like 'teaching' storyboards fastened on brick and granite walls, is an intellectual embarrasment. Visitors get quick Reader's Digest-styled sound bites about the lives of 'presidential' slaves.

Call it the President Slaves House. But mixing oil and water like this comes close to false advertizing. As it is, the only 'President' we get is down under, in a glass-enclosed archeological dig showcasing the foundations of the original house, built sometime between 1790 and 1800. The house was razed in 1833.

While the framed dig works very well as a centerpiece, everything else on the ground floor -- the representational door, window, and fireplace -- points to a curious flip-flop as the slave narrative dominates and 'enslaves' the story of the presidents. Or, shall we say the 'evil oppressors' in the archeological hole.

It's not that the story of slavery in Philadelphia shouldn't be told. Tell it by all means, but don't superimpose it onto another story. The design message of the President's House seems nothing but a critique of 19th-century slavery by 'enlightened' 21st-century standards. As a result, the visitor leaves knowing nothing about the important people who lived in the house, including Benedict Arnold and Robert Morris.

If the mission of the architects was to cast aspersions on the presidents who the house is suppose to honor, they then succeeded in equating the guys in wigs with rabid racists. This message is delivered with overblown evangelical zeal. The 'instructive' billboards hammer visitors, blow by blow. The most egregious, 'The Dirty Business of Slavery,' wins the Capt. Obvious Award. All that's missing a third-grade teacher with a ruler in hand making sure that each visitor is really, really paying attention.