Perhaps you’ve noticed it nestled among the skyscrapers of the Financial District at a prominent spot diagonally across from the New York Stock Exchange. Perhaps you’ve noticed the tourists posing for pictures on the steps in front of the statue of George Washington but have never ventured up those steps to see what was inside. It is easy to dismiss the building as a musty remnant of our history relegated to 4th grade test books, but in fact the site and building hold some fascinating relevance. It is one of New York’s and our country’s greatest historic landmarks—the birthplace of American Government.
The site was the original location of NYC’s second City Hall, erected between 1699-1703, and served as the seat of government for the British Colony of New York. It was there in 1735 that publisher Peter Zenger was tried for seditious libel for printing a series of articles in his New York Weekly Journal critical of corrupt royal Governor William Cosby. Zenger was found not guilty, primarily because what he published was true, and set a precedent for freedom of the press. Over 280 years later, the case is still relevant, especially in today’s political climate.
In 1765, delegates from nine American colonies convened at City Hall to develop a response to the British Parliament’s passing of the Stamp Act, a tax on all paper produced in London used by the colonies for legal documents, newspapers, and even playing cards. The colonies issued a Declaration of Rights and Grievances to the King and Parliament. Since the colonies had no representation in Parliament, the grievance of no taxation without representation was rallying cry. Outcry against the Stamp Act is acknowledged as one of the first organized political actions of the American Revolution.
After the start of the Revolutionary War, the building became the meeting place for the Confederation Congress between 1781-1789. In 1788 the Congress commissioned Pierre Charles L’Enfant to enlarge the building which officially became Federal Hall, the first capital of the United States. On April 30, 1789, George Washington, standing on the 2nd floor balcony overlooking Wall Street, was inaugurated as the country’s first president. Over the course of two days in September of that year, the congress passed legislation establishing the Department of State, Department of War, the Treasury, the Federal Judiciary, and the Bill of Rights. In 1790 Congress departed to Philadelphia, then Washington DC, and Federal Hall reverted back to State and City use. In 1812 City Hall moved north and the building was demolished.
The current Greek revival building was built in 1842 as the US Customs House. Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis designed the exterior of the building to evoke the Parthenon in Greece, a tribute to democracy. The building took eight years to construct and cost over one million dollars (in 1842 dollars). The Customs House was built at the approximate location of Federal Hall, but served quite a different purpose. At the time the port of New York generated two thirds of the nation’s wealth and customs duty tariffs were collected there on all goods coming into the country.
By 1862 customs operations were moved to a larger facility, and the US Sub-Treasury took possession of the building. The Sub-Treasury was responsible for close to $3 billion in transactions per year (in 1842 dollars). Millions of dollars in gold and silver were stored in the basement until Federal Reserve Bank replaced the Sub-Treasury system under the General Appropriation Act in 1920.
In 1883 a bronze statue of George Washington by sculptor John Quincey Adams Ward was unveiled. It stands approximately where Washington stood when he took the oath of office on the balcony of the Old Federal Hall. On the 150th Anniversary of Washington’s Inauguration in 1935, the building was taken over by the National Park Service. In 1939 it was designated as Federal Hall Memorial National Historic Site and was later listed on the resister of National Historic Places in 1965.
On September 8, 2002, 300 members of Congress travelled from Washington DC to convene at Federal Hall as a show of support for New York after the September 11th 2001 Attack.
The building is perhaps the least visited national memorial dedicated to the founding of our country. Of the tens of millions of tourists that visit New York every year, only about 200,000 make their way into the building. So the next time you pass this edifice of American History, go inside take a look! It’s free.