April 18-24, 2002
The tradition of caring for historic properties seems to be a recent one in Philadelphia. Take the president’s house, formerly located on what is now the 500 block of Market Street: It is perhaps garnering the greatest attention it has received in the 202 years since President John Adams lived there. Much of the controversy surrounds the National Park Service (NPS) plans for the grounds, which involve the $12.4 million Liberty Bell Center (LBC), and the history and possible remains beneath it.
Archaeological excavation of historic sites is federally mandated in situations where new construction is being carried out. Many people seem unaware, however, that an archaeological investigation has taken place at the site of the old presidential house: In an April 2 edition of the Inquirer, Acel Moore discusses the site of the new LBC and accuses NPS of refusing “to halt construction” on the site “to allow archaeologists and historians to excavate and examine the old slave quarters” that Moore seems certain are now underground.
Noted historian Gary Nash and William C. Kashatus, a former historical interpreter at Independence National Historical Park (INHP), have accused NPS officials of "burying the history of African-Americans" with an inadequate excavation of the site.
Kashatus writes in a piece for the Daily News last Monday that NPS has engaged only in "a preliminary excavation" and says that no exhibition on slavery or outline of the house's floor plan will equal "studying artifacts that can reveal telling details about our nation's blemished history."
Rebecca Yamin, of John Milner Associates, the firm that examined the site, is the principal archaeologist on the project. She says they're wrong on both counts. According to Yamin, there was extensive excavation carried out on parts of the site that will be affected below ground by the LBC, and it is unlikely that slave artifacts will ever be found anywhere on the block.
Much of the record underneath the house, site archaeologists say, was destroyed as successive structures, including deep basements, were erected over the 170 years since the president's house was torn down. In addition, the area "was bulldozed in the 1950s" to create the park that was there until recently. (NPS did not hold responsibility for the park, which was a state park, until 1974.)
Yamin wants to know in particular where Kashatus and Nash have gotten their information.
"The historians seem to be unfamiliar with the work. We did a three-phase, enormously extensive archeological investigation. I mean, what is the basis for this information?"
It was 1832 when the first residence for U.S. presidents was gutted and replaced with three stores. In the years since, other private structures, as well as a public bathroom, have gone up over the site. Today, a plaque marking the location of the house gives a cursory description of some of the people of note who lived there, barely touching on what local historian Edward Lawler calls the overall “glorious history” of the place.
The house, known to some as the Morris mansion, was also home to several slaves George Washington brought up with him from Virginia.
Historians have accused NPS officials of ignoring information provided by Lawler that describes the floor plan of the house, including where Washington's slaves lived. They say this information could be used to create an educational "footprint" of the house on the ground in front of the LBC, describing the experiences of those who lived there, including the slaves.
Phil Sheridan, spokesman for INHP, says the issue raises important questions about what is required to educate and what is the best use of tax dollars in that quest.
"We are in vehement agreement that you must interpret slavery at this sight. But does that require a structure or grid in the pavement? We've long known Washington lived there; we've long known that he kept slaves. The question is, if you dug down and found a few bricks [representing where slaves lived], which we would argue you're not going to find, would that add to the story of slavery? It's not that we think the story of slavery should not be told. It's that we don't think there's anything there that will add to the story of slavery."
Sheridan says that, based on what he and John Milner Associates call a thorough archaeological examination of much of the site (at a cost, he says, of $400,000), it is unlikely that anything of interest is still down there.
Mayor John Street recently gave his approval to continued construction at the site, and Martha Aikens, outgoing superintendent of INHP, has engaged in fairly extensive correspondence with the Independence Hall Association, a vocal proponent of a physical tribute to the president's house. INHP has been consistent in arguing against such a memorial.
Yamin says she can’t believe people aren’t more aware of the finds that were made at the site. “We exposed all the 19th-century walls and basements and found two historic alleyways. We have wonderful assemblages of artifacts, and we uncovered the entire historic configuration of the [street].”
According to Yamin and Jed Levin, an NPS archaeologist who is supervising the site, archaeologists uncovered 33,000 artifacts from the site underneath the LBC, and "approximately 1 million" artifacts were uncovered from the three blocks that include the construction of the LBC, the National Constitution Center and the Independence Visitor Center.
Nine "shaft features," including an icehouse that was behind the president's house, were uncovered at the LBC site. No artifacts necessarily belonging to black slaves were found there, according to the site archaeologists, who say most of the findings were "very common items," that is, ceramics and tableware, much of which can be traced to white residents who lived in houses on the site.
According to Yamin, analysis of the artifacts is going on now, and will continue for some time.
Lawler, who arguably started much of the controversy with his uncovering of the presidential mansion's structure in 2000, says he doesn't "see the efficacy" of further archaeological work, and he adds that, for him, it's an issue of NPS "not doing enough with the fact that Philadelphia was the capital for 10 years. There is such a complex history surrounding the house, and it belongs to every American."