Federal Hall, built in 1700 as New York’s City Hall, later served as the first capitol building of the United States of America under the Constitution, and was the site of George Washington’s inauguration as the first President of the United States. It was also where the United States Bill of Rights was introduced in the First Congress. The building was demolished in 1812.
Federal Hall National Memorial on Wall Street was built in 1842 as the New York Customs House, on the site of the old Federal Hall. It later served as a sub-Treasury building and is now operated by the National Park Service as a museum commemorating the historic events that happened there.
The original structure on the site was built as New York’s City Hall in 1700. In 1735, John Peter Zenger, an American newspaper publisher, was arrested for committing libel against the British royal governor and was imprisoned and tried there. His acquittal on the grounds that the material he had printed was true established the freedom of the press as it was later defined in the Bill of Rights.
In October 1765, delegates from nine of the 13 colonies met as the Stamp Act Congress in response to the levying of the Stamp Act by the Parliament of Great Britain. Drawn together for the first time in organized opposition to British policy, the attendees drafted a message to King George III, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons, claiming entitlement to the same rights as the residents of Britain and protesting the colonies’ “taxation without representation”. After the American Revolution, the City Hall served as the meeting place for the Congress of the United States under the Articles of Confederation, from 1785 until 1789. Acts adopted here included the Northwest Ordinance, which set up what would later become the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, but more fundamentally prohibited slavery in these future states.
In 1788 the building was remodeled and enlarged under the direction of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who was later selected by President George Washington to design the capital city on the Potomac River. This was the first example of Federal Style architecture in the United States. It was renamed Federal Hall when it became the first Capitol of the United States under the Constitution in 1789. The 1st United States Congress met there on March 4, 1789, to establish the new federal government, and the first thing they did was count the votes that elected George Washington as the first President of the United States. He was inaugurated on the balcony of the building on April 30, 1789. Many of the most important legislative actions in the United States occurred with the 1st Congress at Federal Hall. Foremost was adoption of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution; twelve amendments to the Constitution were initially drafted, ten were agreed upon, and on September 25, 1789, the United States Bill of Rights was adopted in Federal Hall, establishing the freedoms claimed by the Stamp Act Congress on the same site 24 years earlier. Also, the Judiciary Act of 1789 was enacted in the building which set up the United States federal court system which is still in use today. In 1812 the old New York City Hall, known as Federal Hall, was torn down for US$400 worth of scrap. Part of the original railing and balcony floor where Washington was inaugurated are on display in the monument.
Customs House and Shrine
In 1790, the United States capital was moved to Philadelphia and what had been Federal Hall once again housed the New York City government until 1812, when the building was razed. The current structure, one of the best surviving examples of classical architecture in New York, was built as the country’s first Customs House, opening in 1842. In 1862, Customs moved to 55 Wall Street and the building served as one of six United States Sub-Treasury locations. Millions of dollars of gold and silver were kept in the basement vaults until the Federal Reserve Bank replaced the Sub-Treasury system in 1920. Two prominent American ideals are reflected in the building’s architecture: The Doric columns of the facade, designed by Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis, resemble those of the Parthenon and serve as a tribute to Greek democracy; the domed ceiling inside, designed by John Frazee, echoes the Pantheon and the economic might of the Romans.
The current structure is often overshadowed among downtown landmarks by the New York Stock Exchange, which is located diagonally across Wall and Nassau Streets, but the site is one of the most important in the history of the United States and, particularly, the foundation of the United States Government and its democratic institutions. The current building is well known for John Quincy Adams Ward’s 1882 bronze statue of George Washington on its front steps, marking the approximate site where he was inaugurated as President in the former structure. In 1920, a bomb was detonated across the street from Federal Hall at 23 Wall Street, in what became known as the Wall Street bombing. 38 people were killed and 400 injured, and 23 Wall was visibly damaged, but Federal Hall received no damage. A famous photograph of the event shows the destruction and effects of the bombing, but also shows the statue of Washington standing stoically in the face of chaos.
Federal Hall National Memorial
The building was designated as Federal Hall Memorial National Historic Site on May 26, 1939, and redesignated a national memorial on August 11, 1955. As with all historic areas administered by theNational Park Service, the memorial was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. Federal Hall was designated a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission on December 21, 1965. The National Park Services operates Federal Hall as a museum. The museum closed on December 3, 2004 for extensive renovations and reopened in the fall of 2006. Normally its exhibit galleries are open free to the public daily, except national holidays, and guided tours of the site are offered throughout the day. Exhibits include:
- George Washington’s Inauguration Gallery – Including the Bible used to swear his oath of office.
- Freedom of the Press – The imprisonment and trial of John Peter Zenger.
- Journey to Federal Hall – An 8-minute video about the history of Federal Hall.
- New York: An American Capital – Preview exhibit created by the National Archives and Records Administration.
On September 6, 2002, approximately 300 members of the United States Congress traveled from Washington, D.C. to New York to convene in Federal Hall as a symbolic show of support for the City, still recovering from the September 11, 2001 attacks. Just four blocks from Ground Zero, the meeting was the first by Congress in New York since 1790. In 2006, Federal Hall National Memorial reopened after a brief closure and a $16 million renovation, mostly to its foundation, after cracks threatening the structure were greatly aggravated by the collapse of the World Trade Center Twin Towers. As a national memorial, the site is open free to the public from 9-5 on weekdays. It has tourist information about the New York Harbor Area’s federal monuments and parks, and a New York City tourism information center. The gift shop has colonial and early American items for sale. It was reported on June 8, 2008, that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and ABC News invited 2008 United States presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama to a town hall forum at Federal Hall. Both candidates declined the offer “because they do not want it limited to one television network.”
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