The President's House
The President’s House
PHILADELPHIA, PA | COMPLETED 2010
Perspectives on History
Before there was a White House in Washington DC, a home in Philadelphia was the residence and office for the nation’s first chief executives—George Washington and John Adams. During pre-construction in 2002, slave quarters were unearthed, which sparked a lively community debate on the most appropriate course of action for the exhibit.
The often dramatic discussions over the future of the exhibit was brought to the stage by local playwright Thomas Gibbons, whose A House With No Walls used the controversy as a springboard for an examination of African-American identity. And Eisterhold Associates was chosen to meet the complex design challenge that these debates had brought forth.
Points of View
Eisterhold was brought in late in the project to make the previous design more responsive to client and public needs—in particular the views and voices of the African-American community. The National Park Service, the city of Philadelphia, and the community has embraced this project—on Independence Mall, America’s sacred founding ground—as a way to open discussion on the difficult issue of slavery.
The challenge fell to Eisterhold Associates to tell an accurate and complete story of the site’s proud yet troubling history.
The unique nature of the physical site added to the challenge. An open-air exhibit, exposed to the elements 24/7, with minimal security, meaning all interpretive elements had to be weather-proof and vandal-proof.
With hundreds of thousands of visitors each year jostling their way through this very small space, we had to convey many complex ideas as simply as possible.
We began with technical research on the best means and methods to survive these conditions, and evaluated their efficacy with the client and architect.
Two Sides to Every Story
Weaving two very different stories, with varied perspectives and resources, was a key challenge of the exhibit. The story of George Washington and the “invention of American presidency” is well documented, with a rich trove of paintings, documents, and images to draw on.
The second—and much more emotionally provocative—story of enslavement of African Americans, has almost no imagery or artifacts.
Learning From History
EAI turned the controversy into a dialogue by embracing it as the primary artifact. This enabled us to start a productive exploration into the nature of history— how we connect to and interact with it, learn from it, and how it is made. We looked to our nation’s founding themes to explore the contradiction of a quest for freedom in a land of slavery, and developed an inquiry-based methodology searching for history lost, and exploring history found. We made sure to fashion topical hooks for the National Park Service to use for further development.
There simply weren’t artifacts and images available to effectively bring home to visitors the true human impact of slavery, so we developed a library of historically documented evocative moments, to illustrate the human impact implied.