President's House still a soggy mess

President's House exhibit at Sixth and Market Streets. Water is such a problem that Independence Park has laid protective sand over some of the ruins. The city keeps making repairs.
President's House exhibit at Sixth and Market Streets. Water is such a problem that Independence Park has laid protective sand over some of the ruins. The city keeps making repairs. (LAURENCE KESTERSON / File Photograph)
Posted: May 23, 2014

Nearly four years after its supposed completion, the President's House commemorative site on Independence Mall is so plagued with chronic leaks, water pooling, and moisture drenching the ruins of George Washington's and John Adams' executive mansion that Independence Park may have to cover the site to protect the archaeological remains.

While the memorial, at Sixth and Market Streets, is within the park's confines, the city managed its construction with the understanding that it would turn over a finished, functioning President's House to the park's care.

That day has never come.

Backfilling the excavated ruins of the house once occupied by the nation's first presidents - and the enslaved servants held by Washington - would be an extraordinary, even unlikely, act for the park. Excavation of the site in 2006 proved hugely popular - more than 300,000 visited during active digging over six summer weeks. And it continues to attract visitors day and night despite the problems.

But park officials point out that their first responsibility is to preserve and protect the nation's resources in their care.

"We've talked internally about a drastic step of filling it with sand and covering it over," said Cynthia MacLeod, superintendent of the park. "It's an option. It's not a pleasant option. But in the name of preservation, it's something we have to consider."

The water problems are hardly new - they began before Mayor Nutter announced in December 2010 that the President's House was open.

Even then, leaks were appearing in the glass vitrine that covers the ruins and allows visitors to view them. The leaks have continued. The panels have leaked. The paving tiles have leaked. Water may be percolating from underground or migrating sideways into what amounts to a historic catchment area.

The city repaired a leaking hatch door that leads underground to the ruins. It still leaks. The city replaced tiles near the vitrine and glass in the vitrine itself. Joints have been sealed and resealed. All to no avail.

Water has become such a problem that the park has laid protective sand over some of the exposed archaeological remains.

Most recently, the city asked independent consultants to analyze the problems. At a May 9 meeting with park officials, the city acknowledged that a belowground drain included in original design documents was never installed, but argued that it might not solve the problems anyway.

An independent consultant has now found a faulty surface drain and a gap along a wall on the site's east side that may be the source of most, if not all, of the heavy seepage.

In an e-mail, Mark McDonald, Mayor Nutter's spokesman, said the problems were "being monitored on a regular basis."

"The administration continues to work through the issues with our stakeholders," he said.

Mona Washington, a member of the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (ATAC), the group that played a major role in pushing the city and park service to construct the memorial, said her group had pressed for completion. "ATAC wants all things fixed as soon as possible," she said. "At this point, there's so much finger-pointing, I don't know how we get past that."

Beyond the leaks and seepage, the park has never been able to get the site's heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning system to deliver accurate readings - and may not be able to determine its effectiveness because of the constant water intrusion.

The site's original video monitors were so faulty that they were replaced. The new monitors, while unsightly, seem to function, but the operating system that controls them causes repeated computer crashes.

Park officials are also concerned that they have never received the $2 million maintenance endowment the Delaware River Port Authority approved in 2009. (McDonald says the city has not spent any of it.) Nor do they have the intellectual property rights to the video stories on the site, which portray important individuals and events that took place there. These videos carry much of the story of the house's enslaved inhabitants and cannot be used anywhere other than the memorial. When the monitors are down, the stories go down with them.

Washington said she has suggested bringing in an arbitrator to work out the problems.

"An arbitrator has more discretion," she said. "Politically, it could be an out for all parties. An arbitrator could [make decisions] without apportioning blame."

MacLeod said that was a "reasonable idea." The city has not responded.

For now, the park superintendent said she is waiting to see what happens with the latest series of repairs, which she termed "reasonable."

"We are willing to try this with the understanding that we will track the repairs' performance," she said. "I think the city agrees and is willing to continue pursuing the problem if this repair isn't effective."

215-854-5594 @SPSalisbury

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