Polaneczky: Don't rush removal of coffins at Old City cemetery

Construction Site Coffins Found
Workers excavate coffins from a construction site in the Old City neighborhood, Thursday. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Well, here we go again. A downtown construction project has stalled because something of historic significance has reared its long-dead head.

So here come the delays, perhaps followed – depending on findings – by spirited protests, now that we’ve rediscovered the feisty high of citizen demonstrations.

And – sorry, Philly – that’s as it should be. When you’re privileged to live, build, and work in America’s most historically significant city, it comes with certain, shared responsibilities.

This time around, we’re responsible for the careful stewardship of a bunch of graves from as far back as the mid-1700s, unearthed last month during construction at an Old City site being developed by PMC Property Group.

As I write this, a gaggle of volunteer archaeologists are on the scene, excitedly excavating wooden caskets  from the site of the former First Baptist Church at 218 Arch St., which had a burial ground.

As my colleague Stephan Salisbury has reported, the remains were supposed to have been moved to Mount Moriah Cemetery in 1859, when the First Baptist site closed. But they never made it out of the ground.

PMC discovered the coffins on Feb. 20 and had given the volunteers until Saturday to finish excavating. On Friday, as volunteers raced to make the deadline, Jonathan Stavin, the company’s executive  vice president, amended the deadline. Diggers can keep at it into next week.

"It is not our intent to stop the process," Stavin said. "We are not going to cut it off."

That’s a generous decision, and – lucky for us – a moral one. But it shouldn’t be left to luck whether a developer exercises moral judgment in deciding when a special undertaking like this should be completed. I wish the city could issue a stop-work order at 218 Arch St. to put the brakes on this thing until we know the full extent of the dig’s findings.

Because this is a private project, though, says Licenses and Inspections Commissioner David Perri, all the city can do is trust PMC’s promise to do right by the remains in its care. But doing right can get expensive: Time is money, and these archaeological discoveries can chew up lots of both. I hope PMC continues doing the right thing, despite the ticking clock. 

Remember the dig at the site of the first President’s House, at Sixth and Market? The mansion, where George Washington and John Adams lived and worked during the earliest days of our democracy, was demolished in 1951. For years, a historic marker on the site was the only indication that two founding fathers had spent so much time there.

In 2002, though, a local historian revealed that the site had also been home to nine slaves owned by Washington -- and to whom he refused to grant freedom. Ironically, construction of a new Liberty Bell Pavilion was underway on part of the site.

Work was halted, which was easy to do because it was a federal project. Passionate, painful, and admirable debate then ensued about the appropriateness of using the site to build a monument to freedom when it sat upon a foundation that once held slave quarters.

The pause was worth it: 

The Liberty Bell Pavilion got built, but its exhibits were reworked to more accurately portray the fact that America was slow to embrace the concept the bell symbolized.

The city and feds found money to excavate the site of the President's House, a project that yielded unimaginable artifacts -- including parts of the home's foundation -- that wouldn't have been discovered if not for the controversy.

And a permanent, poignant commemoration of the site has been erected.

Only more time will reveal the extent of the Arch Street burial ground's contents and significance. And good for PMC for yielding it, if only after reading news stories about dogged  volunteers sprinting to finish the kind of job that should never be rushed.

As stewards of Philadelphia’s history, our city owes it to our ancestors not to hurry the job's unfolding. 

PMC’s slogan might be "We're bringing life back into the urban East Coast."

But first, they’ve got to deal with the dead.