Problems still plague Philadelphia's President's House memorial

The jutting monitors at Sixth and Market Streets are "hideous," according to officials of the National Park Service.
The jutting monitors at Sixth and Market Streets are "hideous," according to officials of the National Park Service. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 20, 2012

The rumblings about problems at the President's House memorial site began years ago. When it was officially opened Dec. 15, 2010, it was not finished. In December 2011, city project manager James Lowe informed Cynthia MacLeod, superintendent of Independence National Historical Park, that construction finally was complete.

But it wasn't, and today chronic equipment flaws and malfunctions still threaten the historic remains of the nation's first presidential mansion and subvert the message of the memorial, a joint project of the City of Philadelphia and the National Park Service.

"I would say that we believe there's an urgency to have this exhibit looking beautiful and fully functional," MacLeod said. "It's too important."

The story of why that hasn't happened is contained in hundreds of pages of letters, e-mails, and documents obtained by The Inquirer from the federal government under the Freedom of Information Act.

Those documents tell a tale of questionable design decisions, failures of far-flung subcontractors to address repeated breakdowns, and official stubbornness in the face of one problem after another.

"The problems are worse, much worse actually, than I had realized," wrote lawyer Michael Coard in a May 25 e-mail to various officials.

Coard, leader of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, which fought for the commemorative installation for more than eight years, said the President's House had become "a never-ending construction site."

Mona Washington, another ATAC member, said in a recent interview that the memorial was "the very first thing people see when they come out of the [Independence] Visitor Center."

"We're angry that it still has not come to fruition," she said. "It's a hit-and-run job."

The President's House, which commemorates the place where George Washington and his successor, John Adams, launched the new nation in the 1790s, and where Washington held at least nine slaves, has been plagued by multiple failures of its audiovisual equipment.

It now features new video units that park officials describe as "hideous," according to the documents.

The remains of the first presidential mansion, unearthed during a dramatic excavation in 2007, have suffered serial inundations of water from leaking glass panels.

The heating and cooling system inside the protective glass box covering the archaeological ruins has failed to work consistently, producing extreme fluctuations in humidity and leading park service officials to fear for the integrity of the ruins they are trying to preserve.

For three years they have questioned use of the system, warning about the threat of moisture and earthbound salts that go through destructive cycles of solidifying and dissolving as the humidity changes.

The city is responsible for managing the $8.5 million project; it must resolve concerns and problems before the park can take over the memorial. It also has provided about $2 million for ongoing maintenance at the site.

Ultimately, Kelly/Maiello Architects & Planners, which designed and built the commemorative site after winning a contract with the city, rejected the park service's concerns.

Now, biological growth, the product of high humidity, can be seen on the eastern portion of the archaeological fragments. Streams of water have eroded parts of the excavation area and repeatedly formed puddles over the last 18 months.

But the problematic audiovisual system - five monitors that present the African American stories tied to the President's House - has had the greatest impact on the visitor experience.

The first monitors, built by an Australian firm, featured LCD panels that were not designed for use in direct sun, a constant factor at the unshaded site at Sixth and Market Streets, according to documents reviewed by The Inquirer. Yet, for more than six months the architect and subcontractors sought to repair the units, or to replace them with more of the same.

Apart from direct sun, heat buildup and water seepage led to innumerable breakdowns that began the day after the site opened to the public in 2010. Finally, in August 2011, the architect made the decision to replace the original monitors with different units. The replacements - also not designed for use in direct sun - now have been installed, and, while they appear to function, they do so at considerable design cost.

The new monitors jut out at least 12 inches and angle down, like teetering air conditioners, to avoid direct sunlight on their screens.

They also require room for ventilation, which means that the granite wall bearing the names of Washington's enslaved workers - for many the emotional core of the site - has had a large hole cut through it to accommodate a video unit. The back of the wall now includes louvered bars to hide the rear of the monitor, and the sound of the video is piercingly audible on both sides of the wall, adding to the cacophony now ricocheting through the installation.

The park service and community members have complained repeatedly, first about the constant breakdowns, now about sound, image quality, and appearance.

At a May 30 meeting with Everett Gillison, Mayor Nutter's chief of staff, MacLeod, superintendent of the park, protested that the monitors were chosen "on the fly" and that the service "never signed off on the new design," according to meeting notes.

In a memo a few days earlier the park service asserted that Kelly/Maiello "discounted everyone's concerns and swore that the design would work. It didn't."

Architect Emanuel Kelly said his promises were based on information from his subcontractors. Besides, he said, the park objected only to appearance, not function.

But park officials argue that appearance matters in a commemorative public installation: The Kelly/Maiello design was selected, in large part, because of its appearance and potential to tell an important story.

In a Dec. 21, 2011, memo, MacLeod told the city that the units "severely detract from the overall design of this commemorative site."

Much of the repair work on the audiovisual and climate-control systems at the site has been covered by manufacturer and contractor warranties. Cost of replacing the monitors, less than $100,000, was borne by Kelly/Maiello.

In a recent interview, Gillison said he was seeking "to find the path forward." That said, he added: "I'm not redesigning an entire exhibit because somebody doesn't like any particular aspect."

Are the replacement monitors "the be-all and end-all?" he said. "No. Do they provide the audiovisual experience? Yes. Can they be improved? I expect the answers."

While the monitors have been the most visible problem for the site, protection of the house ruins is of even greater importance for the park service, which is charged with preservation.

Kelly/Maiello dismissed groundwater concerns expressed by the park service conservator as early as 2009 and did not build perimeter drainage that might prevent lateral movement of water into the area beneath the excavated site. Neither Kelly/Maiello nor its subcontractors placed sensors in the soil to determine embedded moisture levels. Kelly said in an interview that sensors were needed in the air above, not in the soil.

"What you want to test is the relative humidity in the space," he said, adding that sensors now in place were being relocated after giving wildly fluctuating readings for 18 months. "This is the fine-tuning and the tweaking that's going on."

In a memo dated May 22, however, the park service said major issues remained: "Something is drastically wrong with the system. It has failed more than 10 times since installed."

Gillison must resolve these disputes. "We're not stuck on stupid here," he said. "We're going to keep working until we get it right."


Contact Stephan Salisbury

at 215-854-5594, ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter.

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