So I found myself wandering the wind-blown streets of lower Manhattan this past weekend, searching for traces of the nation’s first federal capital.
It might seem a little early for a field trip in this blog about historic Washington, D.C., but my flight back from South Africa brought me through JFK, and I decided to make a weekend of it.
Here’s the question I wanted to investigate: How much does the Big Apple celebrate its capital heritage?
Short answer: Not much.
Maybe it’s because New Yorkers have historically been more consumed with the business of business, rather than the business of government.
Or maybe it’s because they knew it was always meant to be a temporary affair.
Congress eventually decided that the capital would be in New York for just one year, before it took up temporary residence again in Philadelphia while a new federal district was being constructed.
But still, something momentous happened in this city on April 30, 1789 – the very first presidential inauguration. George Washington was sworn in on the balcony of the country’s newly minted Capitol, called Federal Hall.
New Yorkers had donated the building that had previously served as their city hall, and which had its own historic connections to the Revolution. (It’s where the Stamp Act Congress met, and ironically for the District, the birthplace of the phrase “No taxation without representation.”)
Washington chose a Frenchman and former Revolutionary War comrade -Pierre Charles L’Enfant – to expand and redesign the structure, which would be the new home for Congress, the Judiciary, and the Executive branches.
The interior had impressive chambers for the House and Senate, and was lit by a glass dome.
The exterior had columns and a portico that took its cues from classical buildings, but with new symbolic touches, such as the eagle and thirteen stars.
The building was widely praised, and it was apparent that this Frenchman had not only created our first government office building, but also a new expression of uniquely American architecture.
Much more on L’Enfant in later blogs, but suffice to say, this wouldn’t be the last time that Washington would call upon his services – and for far greater projects.
So it was this historic building that I went searching for amid the snow and slush from the East Coast’s latest winter storm.
And I soon found it – well, sort of.
Federal Hall is now a national memorial run by the National Park Service, located at 26 Wall Street. But it’s not the original structure, where Washington took the oath of office, where our federal judiciary and Supreme Court were created, and where the Bill of Rights was introduced.
That “inconsequential” building was torn down in 1812.
The current building was constructed on the same site in 1842 as a Customs House, and later served as a U.S. Sub-Treasury location storing the nation’s gold and silver reserves, before officially becoming a memorial in 1955.
It’s a bit of an architectural mash-up – combining the Greek exterior of the Parthenon with the Roman interior of the Pantheon. (Basically what you would get if the Lincoln Memorial swallowed the Jefferson Memorial whole.)
It’s also one of the best preserved classical buildings from that time period still in existence in Manhattan.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to go inside – it’s only open Monday through Friday. But if I had, I would have seen the original Bible used by George Washington as he took the oath of office, and the railing and stone floor of the balcony on which he stood.
There’s also a map for a self-guided tour of Washington’s New York to guide visitors around other sites connected to the city’s capital history – such as nearby St. Paul’s Chapel (Washington’s pew is still there), and the site of the original presidential mansion on Cherry Street (now just a plaque on the anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge).
Standing on the steps of Federal Hall, I knew that New York had something that Washington, D.C. could never rightly claim.
This was where our government officially began.
But looking across Wall Street, I could also see that New York had clearly moved on.
The museum is overshadowed by its more important neighbor, a historic building still in continual use: the New York Stock Exchange.
So New York might have moved beyond its capital history, but history wasn’t quite done with Federal Hall.
In 2002, Congress actually came back to the city to meet at Federal Hall for the first time in 212 years, as a show of solidarity between the two cities after the 9/11 attacks.
The building had even suffered damage to its foundation after the fall of the Twin Towers just four blocks away.
As someone who lived in the District during 9/11, and who had plenty of friends living in New York, I can’t think of a better example of the enduring bond between the past and present capitals.
They have a fabulous blog and podcast about New York City history, and incidentally were a major inspiration for starting up this blog.
See you back in the District!