City Hall, year 1900: Looks slightly different, doesn’t it? The tower was rebuilt after a fire in 1917, and the entire exterior was redone in Alabama limestone in the 1950s
New York City Hall sits majestically inside a nostalgic, well-manicured park, topped with a beautiful old fountain straight out of gaslight-era New York. But its serenity belies the frantic pace of government inside City Hall walls, and disguises a tumultuous, vibrant history. There have actually been two other city halls — one an actual tavern, the other a temporary seat of national government — and the one we’re familiar with today is a little less than 200 years old.
Join us as we explore the unusual history of this building, through ill-executed fireworks, disgruntled architects, and its near-destruction — to be saved only by a man named Grosvenor Atterbury.
PLUS: We look at the park area itself, a common land that once catered to livestock, British soldiers, almshouses and a big, garish post office.
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I’ll Drink To That: Stadt Huys, New Amsterdam’s town hall, was a multi-purpose stone building housing an inn, a tap room on the first floor and the workings of city government on the second floor. The building was the government center even when the British arrived and would only be replaced in 1700.
Federal Style: The second city hall, made from stones from the actual ‘wall’ of Wall Street, would be a bustling overstuff building and central to the beginnings of American history. For a couple years, as Federal Hall, it was the center of federal government; the votes for George Washington as the first president were counted here, and he was sworn in from the balcony. (Pic courtesy NYPL)
Park Purposes: Before City Hall arrives, the common ground held several buildings, includin almshouses and debtors prisons (depicted in the background) and an early version of the American Museum (which evolved to become Barnum’s American Museum).
There Goes The Neighborhood: The image below depicts life in the year 1820. With the introduction of a shiny new City Hall, lavish rowhouses begin springing around the park, housing New York’s elite. Just a few years before, they would have faced into almshouses.
D’oh!: Wanna know one really good reason why we don’t shoot off fireworks in the middle of the city anymore? One robust fireworks celebration, honoring the laying of the Atlantic cable, caught the roof of City Hall on fire in 1858, causing extensive damage. (courtesy here)
The City Grows Up: New York’s growth spurt starts around City Hall Park, with a few new skyscrapers becoming the tallest buildings of their times, including the World Building (pictured at center), the Park Row and St. Paul buildings (just south), and the Woolworth Building, on the park’s west side.
The Municipal Building joins it a few years later….
Post Haste: The City Hall Post Office sat on the southern end of City Hall Park. In the picture below (not sure of date, but obviously early 1920s at earliest) it sits directly across from the Woolworth Building. The post office was demolished in 1939.
The front of the Post Office, entirely consuming the area that is today’s southern end of the park and adjoining traffic triangle.