Have you heard? On Friday, we’ll all be welcoming a new tenant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, though just how welcome he will be seems to be a matter of some debate. Nevertheless, the White House (or more formally, the Executive Mansion) is inextricably linked to the Presidency, however such was not always the case. In fact, our first Commander in Chief, George Washington himself, never spent a night there. Indeed, Washington DC was our third capital, after Philadelphia, and prior to that, New York City.
So if the President (not to mention the rest of the government) was holed up for a time in Philly and New York, it begs the question, what were his accommodations like? You’d think that with all of those ‘George Washington Slept Here’ plaques marking second-rate tourist attractions across the former colonies, we’d know a little more about where he slept during his entire presidential administration, wouldn’t you? Well, until fairly recently, you’d be plain out of luck.
Actually, you’d still be out of luck if you went to New York today hoping to see where our first president lived. He occupied two different homes during the two years of his term that the government was based out of New York, and both are long gone. Historic preservation sounds wonderful on paper, but in this case, both sites are located in what is now the financial district, so if you want to stand in the same spot where Washington lived during that era, you’ll likely be doing it in the lobby of a forty-story bank.
But in Philly, things are different. A recent addition to the Independence National Historic Park – which includes Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell Center, and other important stuff – is a partial reconstruction of the presidential residence. Since the original house was demolished in 1832, the President’s House (clearly a lot of thought went into that name) is now an open-air pavilion that occupies the exact footprint of the original structure, with low walls indicating the building’s shape, where the doors and windows were, etc.
It’s really, really well done, with an important focus on preserving what little remains of the archeological site itself. You can see parts of the building’s foundation, a few artifacts that were unearthed during the pavilion’s construction, and a special exhibit on slavery in Philadelphia during the colonial and early federal period. It seems that Washington did in fact bring a contingent of…um, uncompensated servants…with him. (Their quarters were discovered along with those artifacts noted above.)
To me, the most interesting feature of the President’s House though, is that with the restoration of the building’s footprint, you can see a set of windows in a rounded, bay-style arrangement (forgive me, I know nothing about architecture). This is where President Washington would stand, with his back to the windows, to receive guests in a formal setting. The idea was preserved in future presidential offices, including the oval rooms in the center of the White House and eventually, the Oval Office in the West Wing that we all recognize today. So, now you can stand in the footprints of President Washington in the original Oval Office. Now how cool is that?