History of the President's House Site

The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation

In this house, the nation's executive mansion, Presidents George Washington and John Adams lived and carried out the important affairs of state. During this time, the house itself served as a mirror of the young republic, reflecting both the lofty principles and painful contradictions of the new nation. Although the Office of the President was lauded as embodying the fundamental ideals invoked by the phrases "We the People" and "All men are created equal," the meaning behind those words did not apply to everyone in the new United States, or to the nine enslaved men and women held in bondage in this house. Over the past 240 years, the President's House Site has experienced a rich and complex history. During its first thirty or so years, the house was associated with a host of important events and people. However, this site's historical significance eventually faded in the 19th and 20th centuries. The house was ultimately demolished and its vital story very nearly erased from public memory.


Brief timeline of the President's House Site

1767–1772: Mary Lawrence Masters Residence
In 1767, Mary Lawrence Masters initiates construction on the property that would come to be known as the President's House. In 1772, Mrs. Master's eldest daughter Polly marries Richard Penn, grandson of William Penn and lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. The house is given to the young couple as a wedding present.

1772–1775: Richard and Polly Penn Residence

The Penns live in the house for only about three years. In 1775, shortly before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Richard Penn is asked to present the First Continental Congress's grievances to King George III personally in the form of the "Olive Branch Petition." The Penns spend the duration of the war in England.

1777–1778: General Sir William Howe Headquarters
In September 1777, British forces under General Sir William Howe occupy Philadelphia after the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown. General Howe makes the Masters-Penn house his winter residence and headquarters while Washington and his troops retreat to Valley Forge. In June 1778, the British evacuate Philadelphia and consolidate their forces in New York.

1778–1779: Benedict Arnold Residence
Colonial forces enter Philadelphia under the command of Major-General Benedict Arnold. Arnold promptly makes the Masters-Penn House his residence and headquarters. In March 1779, Arnold resigns his post and two months later, while still living in the house, he begins his treasonous correspondence with the British.

1779–1790: Robert Morris Residence
In January 1780, the house is severely damaged by fire, and is subsequently purchased and rebuilt by Robert Morris, the famed "Financier of the Revolution." Morris rebuilds the house to its original plan, enlarges the property, and adds an icehouse and several back buildings.

1790–1800: Washington and Adams Executive Mansion
In 1790, Robert Morris volunteers his house to serve as President Washington's residence while Philadelphia temporarily serves as the nation's capital. Washington occupies the property from November 1790 to March 1797, during which time his household includes nine enslaved Africans brought up from Mount Vernon. He also makes several enlargements and modifications to the house and back buildings, including the addition of a slave quarters between the kitchen and stables.

John Adams succeeds Washington as President and moves into the President's House in March 1797. Adams leaves Philadelphia in 1800 and moves into the newly completed White House in Washington D.C. on November 1.

1800–1832: Francis's Union Hotel
After Adam's departure, the President's House is converted into the Francis's Union Hotel, and subsequently into a boardinghouse and a series of commercial storefronts.

1832–1935: Commercial Transformation
In 1832, the building is demolished and rebuilt as a series of three narrow stores. Only the east and west walls of the original house are left standing, and are incorporated into the later commercial buildings.

1935–1951: Demolition
In 1935, the later commercial properties are themselves demolished, although remnants of the original east and west walls of the President's House survive until the early 1950s. In 1951, the entire block is razed for the construction of Independence Mall, and the last surviving above ground components of the house are finally destroyed. In 1954, as part of the Mall plan, a public toilet is built within the footprint of the house—likely damaging any subsurface remnants of the foundations—and remains in place until 2003.

Last updated: August 30, 2016

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

143 S. 3rd Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106



Contact Us