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Beyond the Village and Back: Federal Hall, 26 Wall Street

In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to our neighborhoods.

Federal Hall at 26 Wall Street is one of New York City’s — and the nation’s — most historic locations. Known as the “Birthplace of American Government,” it’s the site where George Washington took the oath of office as our first President. It was also the site of the first Congress, Supreme Court, and Executive Branch offices.

Federal Hall, 1790 hand-colored engraving by Amos Doolittle, depicting Washington’s April 30, 1789 inauguration

Prior to the Revolutionary War, the original “Federal Hall” was the British colonial city hall. In that prior incarnation, it had a rich history; it was here that John Peter Zenger was jailed, tried, and acquitted of libel for exposing government corruption in his newspaper, helping to establish freedom of the press in this country. It’s also where the Stamp Act Congress assembled in October 1765 to protest “taxation without representation,” laying the groundwork for the American Revolution.

Following the successful war for independence, the Continental Congress met at City Hall, adopting the Northwest Ordinance in 1787 and establishing the procedures for creating new states.

When the Constitution was ratified in 1788, New York and Federal Hall remained the nation’s capital. Pierre L’Enfant, who would go on to design the plan for Washington, D.C., remodeled the City Hall for the new federal government. The First Congress met here and wrote the Bill of Rights. George Washington was inaugurated here on the second floor balcony as the country’s first President on April 30, 1789. The building housed the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the office of the President.

Federal Hall (1797). Photo from the William Eppes Collection of Village Preservation’s Historic Image Archive.

When the nation’s capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, the building again returned to use as New York’s City Hall until 1812. That’s when the present-day City Hall at what was then the northern edge of town was opened, and Federal Hall was demolished, its parts sold for salvage.

The current structure on the site was built as a Customs House, which opened in 1842. In 1862, the Customs Service moved to 55 Wall Street, and the building became the U.S. Sub-Treasury. Tons of gold and silver worth millions of dollars were kept in the building’s basement vaults, until the Federal Reserve Bank replaced the Sub-Treasury system in 1920.

Federal Hall today, image via Wikipedia

By the late 1930s, the Sub-Treasury building was planned to be torn down. A group called Federal Hall Memorial Associates was formed in 1939, raising money to prevent the building’s demolition. The building was designated Federal Hall Memorial National Historic Site on May 26, 1939. After several months of negotiations, Federal Hall Memorial Associates was allowed to operate the interior as a museum. Federal Hall was re-designated a national memorial on August 11, 1955, and the National Park Service began to administer the national memorial. A memorial to the Bill of Rights was dedicated in 1964. The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966, and designated a New York City landmark on December 21, 1965. The building opened to the public in 1972 as a museum.

Federal Hall’s long rich history and struggle against the wrecking ball may be reminiscent of many landmarks in Greenwich Village. But what, more directly, is this national monument’s Village connection? There are actually four great connections:

The Village Connection, Part I

The present-day Federal Hall, with its statue in front of George Washington erected in 1882 as a salute to the first President’s inauguration, is most famous for memorializing this event. But it’s not the only place in New York where the administering of the first oath of office is commemorated. Washington Square Arch, in the heart of Greenwich Village, was erected to honor the 100th anniversary of that same event.

Prior to the centennial, William Rhinelander Stewart, a wealthy resident of one of the posh townhouses around the square, began campaigning to erect a temporary triumphal arch in the European tradition. He convinced his well-heeled neighbors to help foot the bill, and brought on Stanford White, of the renowned firm of McKim, Mead, and White, to create the design. The arch spanned Fifth Avenue just north of Washington Square.

The temporary arch, created with wood and plaster, proved to be very popular, and soon a campaign (and more fundraising from neighbors) for a permanent version was underway.

The Washington Square Arch ca. 1905. The Washington sculptures flanking the archway were not completed until 1916 and 1918.

By 1890 a new, permanent version of the arch was under construction. This one was once again designed by Stanford White, who used Tuckahoe marble for the new 30-foot wide arch, moved slightly south to within the boundaries of Washington Square Park.

The Village Connection, Part II

The second connection between Federal Hall and the Village is the New York Society Library. Known as “the City Library” until the New York Public Library was founded in 1895, the library originally occupied one room in Federal Hall. According to the Society Library In 1789 and 1790, when New York was the nation’s capital and Congress occupied the building—then renamed Federal Hall—it served as the first Library of Congress; it was used by George Washington and John Jay. It was at this point that two books were charged out to George Washington but were never returned. In 2010, representatives from Mount Vernon formally presented the Library with another volume of one of the missing books, “The Law of Nations” by Emer de Vattel.

The library was looted and used during the Revolution, and the collection severely diminished. But by 1795, with its catalog of 5,000 books replenished, the NY Society Library moved from Federal Hall to 33 Nassau Street, where it hosted the likes of Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper. In 1840 the Society moved to Leonard Street and Broadway, where Henry David Thoreau and John James Audubon were members. As the library’s collection increased to 35,000 volumes by 1856, it became necessary to build a larger building.

The Library Society on University Place, 1936, from MCNY

And so in 1856, the New York Library Society moved to Greenwich Village. They built and took up residence in their beautiful building located at 67 University Place between 12th and 13th Streets. The street numbers were changed in 1895, and 67 University Place became 109 University Place. Here they remained for 81 years, until 1937. Sadly, their magnificent building on University Place was demolished, and in 1940 was replaced with the Art Deco apartment building found there today (image below).

107-109 University Place

Located today at 53 East 79th Street between Madison and Park Avenues, the library is now housed in a stunning individual New York City landmark built in 1916 — one of the very first landmarks designated on the Upper East Side, and one of the first in New York.

52 East 79th Street

The Village Connection, Part III

The third connection between Federal Hall and the Village is the Greek Revival Style of architecture that was used in the remodeled Federal Hall and is also so prevalent in, and strongly associated with, our neighborhoods.

The Greek Revival style dominated the neighborhoods of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo for much of the 1830s and 40s, and thanks to landmark protections and the work of organizations such as Village Preservation, ample examples survive today. The introduction of the Greek Revival style in the second quarter of the 19th century was inspired by the Greek War of Independence which began in 1821, and the affinity in America for the quest for independence by the world’s first democracy (which appropriately enough became the style used for Federal Hall, a building commemorating a seminal event in the founding of the first modern democracy).

The Pantheon in Rome (2018). Photo courtesy of Wikipedia. Look familiar?

The highest concentration of Greek Revival architecture in New York can be found in our neighborhoods, especially in areas like the Charlton-King-VanDam Historic District. You can learn more about the history behind the Greek Revival style and its many landmarks in our neighborhood on our Greek Revival Storymap here.

The Village Connection, Part IV

Richmond Hill

Speaking of the Charlton King VanDam Historic District, that brings us to our final Village connection to Federal Hall. That area was once the home of Richmond Hill, one of Manhattan’s most imposing mansions, built in 1767 by Major Mortier. That grand home was located on a 400-foot-high hill, “surrounded by gardens, meadows and woods, all with an impressive view of the Hudson” according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. The mansion quickly became famous for more than just its grandeur when it was used by George Washington as his New York headquarters during the Revolutionary War.

Houses of the Charlton King VanDam Historic District 

After the war, when New York City was the nation’s capitol and the business of our nation’s government was run out of Federal Hall, Richmond Hill became the Vice-Presidential mansion and home of John Adams. After the capitol was moved, Aaron Burr (who would eventually succeed Adams as the country’s third Vice-President) bought the mansion and made it his private home, using it for lavish parties and social gatherings. Burr would eventually sell off the property after he became a pariah for killing Alexander Hamilton (both had served under Washington), which led to the development of the houses found today in this charming district.

Click here for more Beyond the Village and Back connections.

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