Thursday, June 7, 2012

Philadelphia Stories: The Robert Morris Mansion/President's House

Overview of the Liberty Bell Center excavations.

The Robert Morris Mansion

Archaeologists working on the site for the new Liberty Bell Center uncovered the remains of an ice house from the mansion used by Presidents George Washington and John Adams while Philadelphia was the nation's capital from 1790-1800.

The mansion, which belonged to Robert Morris, was demolished in 1832. It was located on what is now the 500 block of Market Street, near the site of the current Liberty Bell Pavilion. The Liberty Bell will be moved to Sixth and Chestnut Streets, as part of the project to revitalize Independence Mall. The interpretive area for the Liberty Bell will run along Sixth Street and will end at what was the rear of the Morris Mansion property.

Prior to the start of construction, federal law requires the NPS to conduct a thorough archeological investigation of the construction area. If we find archeological features that will be damaged or destroyed during the construction process, we are required to fully excavate them. If the features will not be harmed by the construction, standard archeological practice and NPS regulations require the features and their contents be preserved in place. This allows for preservation of the feature plus the opportunity for excavation by future archeologists with potentially better techniques and technology.

Morris Ice House Pits

During these archeological investigations we identified a total of nine shaft features within the footprint of the new Liberty Bell Center (LBC). Five of these were completely excavated as they are located within the planned basement mechanical room space (which extends only partially under the building) for the LBC. These five features yielded some 30,000 items that are presently being processed and catalogued. Based on preliminary analysis, no items related to distinctive African American cultural practices were found within these five features. The other four features, including the well-publicized remains of the icehouse, are slated for in-place preservation in accordance with the NPS policy and archeological practice cited above. Contrary to the impression one might get from what has previously appeared in print, other than the above cited ice house, there were no other features directly tied to the Morris Mansion encountered during our archeological excavations. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has studied this site given the significant level of development that took place in Block One during the 19th Century. Implications that "the old slave quarters" have been uncovered, or deliberately not excavated, as part of this process, are incorrect.

While the LBC archeology did not yield any information directly tied to distinctive African American cultural practices, over one million items were excavated from the third block of Independence Mall. Analysis of these artifacts will add to our knowledge of a very diverse population, including African Americans, who lived in this section of Philadelphia.

The Morris Mansion was used as the Executive Mansion by Presidents Washington and Adams when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital. At the site, the NPS will interpret several aspects of the house, including its use by two presidents and the people in the household, including slaves owned by George Washington. We also plan to denote along the sidewalk of Market Street the approximate location of the Morris Mansion. There are no plans to rebuild the Morris Mansion. While the National Park Service did reconstruct several buildings, such as the Declaration House and the City Tavern, during the early 1970s, current policies no longer permit us to do so. Moreover, we have no intention to outline at full-scale the floor plan of the Morris Mansion as some have suggested, not only because it remains conjecture, but because we genuinely believe it would be confusing rather than revelatory.

Independence National Historical Park (INHP) has long recognized both the existence of the Morris Mansion and the slaves in Washington’s household while he served as president. The story of slavery in our nation is a story told throughout INHP. We tell the story at the Liberty Bell, named by abolitionists, and at Independence Hall, the site of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the 3/5ths Compromise. During our walking tours, rangers speak of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration and slave owner, and of Benjamin Franklin, a former slave owner turned ardent abolitionist.

Other sites at INHP where slavery is noted include Congress Hall, site of debates over slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act; Franklin Court, with samples of ads in the Pennsylvania Gazette regarding runaway slaves and selling slaves; the Treasurer’s Office in Old City Hall where people would submit paperwork to sue for freedom; the Second Bank of the United States, with its interpretation of Moses Williams, the physiognotrace artist, as well as portraits of the nation’s founders whose views on race and slavery ranged the entire spectrum, and the New Hall Military Museum, which discusses the colored troops in the military. In the future, the Independence Park Institute, the park’s educational facility to be built on Independence Mall, will tell the stories of the struggle for freedom and the fight against slavery to school children and life long learners.

Our interpretation of life in 18th Century Philadelphia also deals with slaves, as part of the diversity that existed in Philadelphia at the time. Beyond 1800, a number of sites within INHP have a direct relationship with the Underground Railroad, from Independence Square, where Frederick Douglass preached his abolitionist oratory, to Carpenters’ Hall, where the First Continental Congress banned the further import of slaves to the colonies. In 2000, INHP submitted an amendment to the National Register of Historic Places to obtain recognition for these and other sites in the struggle against slavery. Former NPS Director Robert Stanton launched the National Underground Railroad network at a press conference on Independence Square.

The Deshler-Morris House in Germantown, Philadelphia, PA

The Deshler-Morris House in Germantown is the oldest surviving presidential residence in the nation. While not adjacent to the Liberty Bell, the Deshler-Morris House is an intact, complete residence where Washington held state dinners and cabinet meetings, and where the slaves of his household also lived. With the current emphasis on heritage tourism in the region, the Deshler-Morris House could well be one of the "crown jewels" of an area rich in historic sites.

While the stories of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall are part of our heritage of freedom, we know it is also our task to tell the stories of those who were not free. We will continue to tell that story throughout the park and at the Robert Morris Mansion site. (source: The National Park Service)

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