Blog Post

The President’s House commemorates unique history

CROPPEDPresidents-House_M. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia

By Dorothy Stanaitis

There’s a historical gem located within our midst that many Philadelphians do not know about. Just across the street from the Independence Visitor Center, located at the corner of Sixth and Market streets, you can see the footprint of the former home of the first two U.S. presidents, called the President’s House. The house was occupied by both our first president, George Washington, and his successor, John Adams, when Philadelphia was capital of the United States from 1790 to 1800.

Built in the late 1760s, the three-story, gracious Georgian brick mansion was commandeered by Gen. William Howe as his headquarters when, during the Revolutionary War, the British occupied Philadelphia from 1777 to 1778.

After the occupation, Major Gen. Benedict Arnold moved in for a year. In 1779, Robert Morris, one of the richest men in America, bought and modernized the mansion by adding a two-story bathhouse and an icehouse. Morris also decorated the front parlor with lavish, imported Chinese wallpaper.

When America’s new president needed a house grand enough to host his weekly receptions, salons and dinners and to receive political leaders from all over the world, Philadelphia chose Robert Morris’ convenient and elegant home.

With Washington’s large staff and several family members, 30 people lived in the house. Washington; his wife, Martha; two grandchildren; and two enslaved maids lived on the upper floors of the back wing over the kitchen. His secretaries lived and worked in the official executive office on the third floor.

Some of the many servants, cooks, washerwomen, porters, coachman, a housekeeper and a steward lived in the attic. Downstairs, in order to create a dramatic, ceremonial background for reception of his guests, Washington is said to have designed the 16-foot bay window that was added to the living room of the spacious mansion.

Sadly, in the 1830s, when Philadelphia was no longer the capital city, the house was nearly demolished. It was used for a while as a hotel, then divided into shops. But it wasn’t long before there was no visual trace of the mansion left.

In 1951, Pennsylvania demolished all of the buildings in the area to create Independence Mall State Park. A women’s restroom built on the site bore a marker describing the significance of the building that had once stood there.

In 2007, an archeological dig came across the 18th century foundations of the house. Rather than recreate and rebuild that mansion, the architect and planner created an outline of the mansion to show its footprint using red brick partial walls, granite flooring, and white door and window frames.

Fireplaces were placed in some walls with video screens above them. Glass windows protect and display below-ground foundation fragments, including the footing for the bay window that Washington had installed.

Perhaps the most touching sight is the tribute to the slaves who lived and worked at the President’s House. Their names are dug deep into a wall located right before the entrance to the Liberty Bell Center, near the slave quarters that Washington had added to the house.

The President’s House is open 24 hours, seven days a week. Information is available at the Independence Visitors Center, located across the street at 599 Market St., One North Independence Mall West: 800-537-7676; questions@phlvisitorcenter.com; or visit phlvisitorcenter.com. (Photo: M. Kennedy for GPTMC)

CAPTION: The President’s House, an open-air Independence National Historical Park site at 524–30 Market Street in Philadelphia, memorializes America’s former executive mansion (1790 to 1800).