The architecture certainly doesn't provide the answer, which is unfortunate for the city, the nation, and the poor tourists trying to navigate the mall. The memorial's gawky perimeter walls don't clearly say "house," yet the abstraction isn't expressive enough to convey the seismic nature of what lies inside.
Eight years after the National Park Service agreed to mark the site where George Washington worked out how to be leader of the free world while simultaneously holding nine people in bondage, the Philadelphia firm of Kelly/Maiello has produced a confused jumble of brick piles. Yet, once you step into the belly of the memorial, the project begins to redeem itself.
As the first federal site to acknowledge the congenital defect of slavery since Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the project's very existence is special. It's not until you are inside the space that you understand the memorial as a full-throated expression of pain and rage. Sure, Washington's tenure there is virtually reduced to a footnote, but at least that story can be found in books. This is the rare memorial where history's collisions can be experienced firsthand.
The interior is dominated by a glass vitrine built over the original foundations of the house, which served as the official presidential residence between 1790 and 1800, during Philadelphia's stint as the U.S. capital. All but demolished in 1832, the building was pretty much forgotten. Then, in 2007, the remains were unearthed in an archaeological dig that electrified the city and spurred a remarkable public conversation about the legacy of slavery.
Still, the foundations almost didn't get preserved. The memorial was already in design, and officials of the Street administration balked at the added expense of encapsulating the ruins.
Ultimately good sense prevailed, and now those crumbling, bleached-out bricks are the star of the show. Other than the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, the foundations are the only real things left on the mall, and they have a power that exceeds their visual modesty.
Only portions of them are visible through the glass. The view has been cropped brilliantly: On one side you see the base of the house's curved parlor window, where Washington received official delegations and perhaps brooded over the fate of the new republic. Opposite that curve are the remains of the kitchen, where the enslaved Hercules prepared food for the first family and state events.
Because Washington so enjoyed his cooking, Hercules was the most indulged of the nine people enslaved in the house. Washington was so determined to keep him at the stove that he schemed to get around the Pennsylvania law entitling enslaved Africans to freedom after a six-month residency. In the end, Hercules obtained his freedom on his own, by escaping.
Twinned in this way, the two fragments movingly dramatize the collision between the democratic aspirations of the new nation and its addiction to slavery, which even its otherwise virtuous first president could not shake.
The collisions are made visible in other ways. The house's exact location was not established until 2002, when historian Edward Lawler Jr. published his startling research findings. But by then, the renovation of Independence Mall was in full swing. Plans called for a new Liberty Bell Center to be built over the footprint of the house. In a bitter irony, the entrance to the shrine to liberty would sit over the precise spot where the stables stood - and where Washington's slaves slept.
The Park Service was so reluctant to accept Lawler's findings that it went ahead with the center as designed. By the time everyone got around to accepting the idea of a memorial, the house site was badly compromised.
Kelly/Maiello's design for the President's House was selected after a bumbled design competition in 2006 that was part popularity contest. The public was encourage to visit the National Constitution Center, where models by five finalists were on display, and vote for their favorite. Kelly/Maiello, the only local firm among the five, wasn't even the top vote-getter, according to Ohio University professor Roger Aden, who is writing a history of the competition.
The virtue of the Kelly/Maiello design was that it did the best job among the finalists of balancing the site's colliding stories. The core idea called for marking the original footprint with a constructed ruin suggesting the lost house. But not only does the design echo Robert Venturi's iconic Franklin memorial three blocks away, it also takes up every inch of the compromised site.
The result is a memorial far too big for the space, bleeding right under the bell center's entrance canopy. Visitors can be forgiven for thinking there has been some kind of head-on collision between the two buildings.
Approaching from the west, where the first thing you see is a mysterious, wedding-cake stack of bricks, it's hard to tell what's going on. The stacks turn out to be stylized representations of fireplaces. The Market Street view offers a few more clues - window and door frames sitting atop a low brick wall.
The most meaningful side is the plain east wall engraved with the names of nine enslaved Africans. Seven are identified only by first name because they had no surnames. To see that omission is to understand how brutally America's enslaved were robbed of their identities.
The firms responsible for the exhibits, American History Workshops and Eisterhold Associates, haven't done much better to convey the site's meaning. The crude story panels look as if they were torn from a bicentennial-era children's book.
There are also video panels, which hang over the fireplace mantels, exposed to the elements. Created by filmmaker Louis Massiah and novelist Lorene Cary, they dramatize scenes of daily life. They were broken the day I visited.
At times, the exhibit designers seem to have arrayed their story panels at random. The reconstructed bay window would seem to offer an opportunity to discuss the burdens Washington faced as America's first president. You can almost imagine him standing there, lost in thought, gazing out at the lively city, which is still visible, and still lively.
Washington deserves to be remembered as more than a powerful man who held slaves, and this was the place to make that point. Instead, the plaques flanking the window relate to relatively minor crises.
The gulf between what we say our nation stands for and the way we conduct our business was huge in those early decades. The gulf remains immense today. This memorial may bring us closer to self-awareness. But it is still not near enough.
Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.