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New President’s House plan to be unveiled Thursday

A new memorial design, born of excitement over the President's House excavation on Independence Mall last spring and summer, will be publicly unveiled Thursday night at Freedom Theatre.

A new memorial design, born of excitement over the President's House excavation on Independence Mall last spring and summer, will be publicly unveiled Thursday night at Freedom Theatre.

In the new rendering - a modified version of the earlier President's House memorial plan by the design team of Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners - visitors will be able to peer down through a glass shed and view archaeological remnants of an 18th-century house once occupied by presidents and slaves.

The meeting is being held to unveil the preferred plan.

When the memorial is completed - officials now believe that probably will be in early 2009 - it will be the first national site commemorating the lives of slaves, public officials and historians say.

The discovery of foundation footings left from the presidential seat of George Washington, who kept at least nine slaves in Philadelphia, and his successor, the anti-slavery John Adams, generated keen public interest. From April through July, more than 300,000 visitors watched from a platform at Sixth and Market Streets as archaeologists uncovered the stony arc of a great bow window designed by Washington and, just a few feet away, foundations of an underground passageway used by servants and slaves, and of the kitchen presided over by Washington's enslaved chef, Hercules.

Public officials and representatives of community groups already have agreed that this new plan represents the best option to embrace the archaeological findings while retaining a focus on the stories of the presidential households, in general, and the nine African slaves, in particular.

"We think we've come up with something that does justice to the goals of the project while capturing the significance of seeing the real [archaeological] resources," said Joyce Wilkerson, Mayor Street's chief of staff. The city has managed the design process, in partnership with the National Park Service.

Attorney Michael Coard, a founder of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, said in an e-mail that both he and his organization enthusiastically support the new design. The coalition was formed several years ago to push the park service to acknowledge the presence of slaves at the site and to commemorate their lives.

Coard said the new design keeps "the focus on the people - enslaved blacks (primarily) and free whites - who toiled and lived at the President's House." At the same time, he said, the design "effectively, creatively, and ingeniously incorporates the fascinating and compelling archaeology."

In 2003, Congress directed the park service "to appropriately commemorate" the house and Washington's enslaved Africans who lived there.

At the public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Freedom Theatre, North Broad and Master Streets in North Philadelphia, Kelly/Maiello will present five plans for the memorial, including the one preferred by officials and by a public-private task force monitoring the project. Kelly/Maiello met extensively with outside experts and community representatives while preparing the different design options.

The preferred plan, which is still in the conceptual stage, will increase the cost of the memorial from about $5.4 million - already in hand - to about $7 million. It is the least expensive of all options that would expose archaeological remnants, according to architect Emanuel Kelly, leader of the design team.

Officials said they would like to raise a total of about $10 million, which would pay additional construction costs and provide a modest endowment for maintenance, programming and other on-going activities.

In addition to the preferred plan, alternatives range from leaving the architectural remains unexposed and hewing to the original Kelly/Maiello design selected during a competition last winter, to a plan that would enclose the entire archaeological excavation area within an overarching glass-walled box. Other possibilities included creating underground viewing levels or covering the entire site with translucent flooring.

The preferred design would leave the first Kelly/Maiello design essentially intact. Visitors would enter a kind of fragmentary house jutting up, snaggled-toothed, from the street corner north of the Liberty Bell Center. Broad brick pillars, reminiscent of chimneys, would serve to hold large LED screens for viewing dramatic presentations of the lives of the house's occupants.

Washington's bow window, which some architectural historians argue prefigures the oval rooms of the White House, is suggested aboveground by an arc of rectangular brick columns. This aboveground arc meshes with the glass viewing enclosure, or vitrine, as the designers call it. The vitrine then exposes the actual foundations of the original window, now about 12 feet below ground.

About three feet away from the subsurface bow window, visitors would see the stone corner and walls of Hercules' kitchen, and a bit further off, the foundations of the underground passageway between the kitchen and the main house.

These archaeological remains, which demonstrate starkly the proximity of power and powerlessness, slavery and freedom at the core of the new nation, would also be articulated in the design topside. The emotional power of the centuries-old belowground fragments would, in essence, mesh with the abstract renderings at street level.

Behind the house, at the entrance to the Liberty Bell Center, a translucent enclosure would mark the spot where Washington once quartered slaves. Archaeologists found nothing remaining from that old structure.

Karen Warrington, a spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.), said she believes that the design "incorporates the concerns put forward by persons who wanted to be able to speak to the archaeological findings, and I think it successfully upholds the mandate for a fitting and appropriate commemoration of the enslaved Africans."

"It's a best-case scenario."

Warrington is a member of the task force that has been reviewing the project's development.

Officials said the public presentation will serve to explain why the preferred plan has been selected and other options rejected.

"Kelly/Maiello has come up with what I think is a very effective way of including the archaeology in the preexisting design," said independent historian Edward Lawler Jr., another task force member. "The archaeology gives heft to the design. This is the truth. Anything built on top of that may be real, but [the archaeology] is real real."