Tag Archives: Federal Hall

New York City and the Inauguration of George Washington

PODCAST Part One of our two-part series on New York City in the years following the Revolutionary War.

The story of New York City’s role in the birth of American government is sometimes forgotten. Most of the buildings important to the first U.S. Congress, which met here from the spring of 1789 to the late summer of 1790, have long been demolished. There’s little to remind us that our modern form of government was, in part, invented here on these city streets.

Riding high on the victories of the Revolutionary War, the Founding Fathers organized a makeshift Congress under the Articles of Confederation.  After an unfortunate crisis in Philadelphia, that early group of politicians from the 13 states eventually drifted up to New York (specifically to New York’s City Hall, to be called Federal Hall) to meet. But they were an organization without much power or respect.

The fate of the young nation lay on the shoulders of George Washington who arrived in New York in the spring of 1789 to be inaugurated as the first president of the United States. His swearing-in would finally unite Americans around their government and would imbue the port city of New York with a new urgency.

This is Part One of a two part celebration of these years, featuring cantankerous vice presidents, festive cannonades, and burning plumage! (Part Two arrives in two weeks.)

FEATURING Washington, Adams, Madison, Livingston and, of course, HAMILTON!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Google MusicStitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:


The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!


The signing of the Constitution, September 17, 1787.

George traveling to his inauguration, as depicted in the 1896 book “The Century book of famous Americans : the story of a young people’s pilgrimage to historic homes” 

Internet Archive Book Images

And from an 1889 illustration:

Courtesy NYPL


President-Elect Washington crosses floating bridge (Gray’s Ferry) — and through one of many triumphal arches — on his inaugural journey, Philadelphia, April 20, 1789



Washington’s reception on the bridge of Trenton in 1789 on his way to be inaugurated 1st president of the U. S.



An illustration from 1855 depicts Old City Hall before it was renovated to house the new federal government.

Another view, with Washington’s six-horse coach in the foreground.



A depiction of Broad Street and Federal Hall as it looked in 1797, but you can easily picture how filled the streets would have been on Washington’s inauguration just eight years earlier.



Here’s how it looked on the 2008 HBO mini-series John Adams:

From an 1899 oil painting (artist unknown)


The presidential mansion on Cherry Street:



The lovely Richmond Hill, the vice presidential mansion home of John and Abigail Adams


St. Paul’s Chapel, where Washington worshipped in New York.  More information at Trinity’s website.

Courting New York’s Legal Landmarks

Civic buildings are often beautiful architecture in plain sight. Their uniformity — many rendered in classical styles — often finds them less appreciated than other forms of urban architecture.  In a city like New York, skyscrapers, hotels and brownstones are more likely to get the attention of camera-wielding tourists over courthouses. After all, doesn’t every town have a courthouse?

But in Robert Pigott‘s engrossing New York’s Legal Landmarks, an extraordinary world of New York’s civic architecture, past and present, comes alive. He focuses specifically on structures pertaining to legal work — courthouses, law schools, law firms, even jails — in a surprising array of architectural forms.

Not every courthouse has Roman columns or cavernous atriums. In New York City, you can find legal buildings in art deco, brutalist and post-modernist styles. In many cases, they fit so well into a city block that you’re hardly aware of their existence.

Here are five of my favorite details from the book which is currently available in bookstores.

Old City Hall

We know the building better today as Federal Hall, the place where the first Constitutional Congress first met in 1789. (The original building was demolished in the early 19th century replaced with this  one in 1842.) But the structure was actually New York’s City Hall as well, serving a variety of purposes — it was a very crowded building — until the current City Hall was finally opened in 1812.

From Pigott’s book: “In 1800, four years before their fatal encounter, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr actually served as part of the same defense team in a sensational murder trial held in Old City Hall. When his fiancé was found dead at the bottom of a well, Levi Weeks, a young carpenter, was charge with the murder. After a three-day trial in which 55 witnesses were called, Hamilton, burr and a third lawyer, Brockholst Livingston, secured Week’s acquittal, having succeeded in casting suspicion on another resident of the boardinghouse where Weeks lived.”

Courtesy MCNY

U.S. Realty Building

Linked to the Trinity Building with a tiny sky bridge, the U.S. Realty Building is a pre-zoning law skyscraper that casts a dark shadow over little Thames Street. For most of the 20th century it was the home of the Lawyer’s Club, a social club for the city’s most successful attorneys.

“In 1918, Thomas Masaryk was speaking at the Lawyer’s Club when he received a cable informing him that he had been elected president of the newly-created sate of Czechoslovakia.”

New York County Courthouse

Probably the most recognizable of New York’s civic architecture, the courthouse was built to replace the extravagant Tweed Courthouse. It used to be known not only for its legal decisions, but for its cuisine!

“In its early years, the Justices lunched in a dining room on the seventh floor on meals prepared in a large on-site kitchen by chefs on the courthouse staff.”

The original Bronx Borough Courthouse

The Bronx has some truly dazzling civic architecture, but not all of it is employed in the services of the city today. This 1915 courthouse, now a New York City landmark, was abandoned in 1977.

“[B]y 1988 it had lain vacant for several years and was described by architectural historian Christopher Gray as a ‘large pigeon coop’. In 1998, the City of New York rejected a bit by comment group Nos Quedamos to acquire the building. Instead it was sold at public auction to a private developer, who continues to seek a suitable use for the structure.”

The book also features a few notable addresses including….

Courtesy Brooklyn Public Library

James Madison High School, Brooklyn

According to Pigott, “[f]rom the high school still located at this address, a future Supreme Court Justice graduated in 1950. Born Ruth Joan Bader in 1933, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was raised in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn.”


New York’s Legal Landmarks
A Guide to Legal Edifices, Institutions, Lore, History and Curiosities on the City’s Streets

By Robert Pigott
Attorney Street Editions

Federal Hall: Now and Always An American National Treasure

Federal Hall National Memorial, currently administered by the National Park Service, has always been a popular landmark with tourists thanks to its position on one of the most photographed intersections in New York. Who can resist that noble statue of George Washington silently meditating on the financial juggernaut of Wall Street?

Today Federal Hall was officially named an official American National Treasure, part of the ongoing Saving Places program by National Trust for Historic Preservation calling attention to endangered landmarks of national significance.  It joins an impressive hodgepodge of local landmarks such as South Street Seaport, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the Whitney Studio.

While this sounds like a distinction that might pique the interest of Nicolas Cage — after all, he broke into Trinity Church up the street in the first National Treasure film — the National Treasure program gives a boost to historic places that may be otherwise neglected or under-appreciated.  When’s the last time you were there?

Here are a few facts about the history of Federal Hall that you may not have known:

1. This isn’t the real Federal Hall The original structure was built in 1699, built by the British who used  materials from the city’s demolished north defense wall — aka the wall of Wall Street — to construct it.  It was the center of most governmental functions, from city administration to later federal functions.


2. It was remodeled by a controversial architect.  Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a successful city contractor and former Continental Army engineer redesigned the structure in time for its use as the first national capital. According to David McCullough, “it was the first building in America designed to exalt the national spirit, in what would come to be known as the Federal style.”  L’Enfant would later work on the creation of Washington DC from Maryland swampland and be fired from that project — by George Washington.

Courtesy Nationaal ArchiefCourtesy Nationaal Archief

3. George Washington was first inaugurated here on April 30, 1789. The King James bible he was sworn in with — property of a New York Freemason lodge — is still at Federal Hall.

From the Bowery Boys Instagram feed:


4. The original Federal Hall was torn down in 1812 when city administration moved to the new City Hall.  Its materials were sold off to make other buildings in the city.

Below: Wall Street in 1825 without a Federal Hall, either old or new!


5. The current Federal Hall is actually the original U.S. Custom House which opened in 1842, replacing a structure used for that purpose at 22-24 Wall Street.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

6. The offices of the Custom House again moved in 1855, and the building was used as the U.S. Sub-Treasury building. In 1913 it became the first place in New  York to buy the original buffalo nickel. 

Below: Suffrage proponents Mrs. W.L. Prendergast, Mrs. W.L. Colt, Doris Stevens, Alice Paul stop in front of Federal Hall

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

7. In 1918 Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks famously drew thousands to the steps of Federal Hall to promote the sale of war bonds.   Later that year doughnuts were auctioned off from its steps as a war fund-raiser.


8.  In 1920 a wagon full of dynamite exploded across the street from the Sub-Treasury, killing 38 people in what is today still an unsolved mystery.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

9. The Sub-Treasury had moved out by the 1930s, and the building was officially re-opened as the Federal Hall Memorial Museum in January 1940.  It was inspired in part by America’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of Washington’s inauguration. The 1939-40 World’s Fair presented a replica of the original Federal Hall even after an earlier version of Federal Hall in Bryant Park failed to attract visitors. 

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

10. Federal Hall received a massive renovation in 2006 after the collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001 weakened the foundations of the building.


Check out the official announcement at the website for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Top image by the Wurts Brothers, taken in 1908. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Remembering the Wall Street bombing of 1920

Lunchtime down on Wall Street today is chaotic mess of brokers and bankers on cell phones, tour groups, messengers on bikes, police, construction workers, people delivering lunch and the stray old lady walking her dog.

Ninety-five years ago today, in 1920, it would have practically been the same, sans the cell phones. So it’s particularly disturbing how easy it is to imagine the noontime scene on September 16, 1920. In fact, most of the surroundings — the Stock Exchange, the Sub-Treasury building (today’s Federal Hall), and most importantly J.P. Morgan’s headquarters on 23 Wall Street — are still very much active.

Courtesy Shorpy
Courtesy Shorpy


An unidentified man led a horse and carriage down the congested street, fighting to get past crowds, until it rested at the corner about 100 feet east of Broad. As the Trinity Church bells rang, the man dropped the reins and fled, never to be seen again.

One minute later, the wagon exploded with 100 pounds of dynamite, eradicating everything in its sphere, then sending dozens of iron slugs through the air to create a horrific scene of carnage.

From the Sun and New York Herald
From the Sun and New York Herald

The best way to really tell this story is to quote a few contemporary accounts from the New York newspapers. NOTE: Some of the accounts are quite graphic.

A 22-year-old woman named Ella Parry survived and was interviewed by the Evening World:

“The glass of our windows fell into the office and the ceiling fell all about us. Where I had just been sitting was covered with heavy plaster. I did not wait to get my hat, but with others rushed into the street.

There were not less than a dozen dead persons on the sidewalk in front of tour building and the Sub-Treasury. Some of them had their faces almost completely blown off and their clothing had either been blown from their bodies or burned off. The police threw sheets over the bodies as fast as they could get them.”

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

From a lawyer named Daniel Nugent who was standing near the site of the explosion:

“I was just about to enter the Morgan Building when the concussion knocked me down on the sidewalk. I arose after I had collected my thoughts and saw broken glass covering the street. All about me men and women were lying bleeding. Above fifty feet down Wall Street there was an auto in a mass of flames. Across the street from it there was a shattered wagon and a horse lying dead. I saw several men cut almost in half from the large plate glass which fell from the building.”


Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

From the New York Tribune:

“Not a sound pane of glass remained in the Morgan Building.  Screens of copper mesh which were set inside the windows were bent and twisted but had fulfilled their mission of protecting those within.  Fragments of the glass dome above the main office lay on the floor, and one of these, or some similar bit of falling debris, is beloved to be responsible for the single death that occurred there.   The streets were covered with broken glass, some of it finely powdered, like sugar.

The heroic statue of Washington on the steps of the Sub-Treasury was not so much as scratched by the explosion, and stood firmly, with hand outstretched in a quelling gesture.”


One unusual story of bravery emerged the following day. A teenage office boy named James Saul grabbed a random automobile and began driving injured victims to the local hospital. Fearing the owner of the automobile was among the injured, he then drove the car to a police station.

By the end of the day, 38 people would be dead from the attack, many while sitting at their desks.  And over 400 more would be injured.

According to the New York Times: “The scene at the Morgue last night [located] resembled in many respects the night of the [General] Slocum disaster.

16 Sep 1920, Manhattan, New York, New York, USA --- New York, NY: Demolished automobile at sene of Wall Street Explosion of September 16th, 1920. Photograph. BPA2# 4804 --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
16 Sep 1920, Manhattan, New York, New York, USA — New York, NY: Demolished automobile at sene of Wall Street Explosion of September 16th, 1920. Photograph. BPA2# 4804 — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS


Below: The late edition of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle: “A mysterious explosion, disastrous in its effect, occurred at noon today on Wall Street, killing more than a score of persons and injuring hundreds.”



Following the attack, the Madison Avenue mansion of J.P. Morgan (site of the Morgan Library and Museum) was heavily guarded. Morgan himself was actually in England, enjoying a relaxing vacation.

Believe it or not, evidence of this attack can easily be seen from the street today.  The banking mogul famously rejected repairs of his bank, preferring to leave the dents and pockmarks on the side of his building in a sign of defiance. With a little morbid imagination and some amateur CSI work, one can probably trace the trajectory of wall’s injuries to the very spot where the poor horse and wagon exploded.

Below: Crowds gather to witness the destruction.


Despite a federal investigation which led to dozens of arrests, in fact the culprits were never caught.  Largely assumed to be Italian anarchists, any evidence was unfortunately lost when, in an effort to appear unfazed, the city cleaned the street and kept Wall Street open for business the next day, even seeing a rally of thousands pour into the street that Friday.


Library of Congress
Library of Congress



Bryant Park: The Fall and Rise of Midtown’s Most Elegant Public Space

NEW PODCAST  In our last show, we left the space that would become Bryant Park as a disaster area; its former inhabitant, the old Crystal Palace, had tragically burned to the ground in 1858.  The area was called Reservoir Square for its proximity to the imposing Egyptian-like structure to its east, but it wouldn’t keep that name for long.

William Cullen Bryant was a key proponent to the creation of Central Park, but it would here that the poet and editor would receive a belated honor in the 1884. With the glorious addition of the New York Public Library in 1911, the park received some substantial upgrades, including its well-known fountain. Over twenty years later, it took on another curious present — a replica of Federal Hall as a tribute to George Washington.

By the 1970s Bryant Park was well known as a destination for drug dealers and most people shied away from its shady paths, even during the day.  It would take a unique plan to bring the park back to life and a little help from Hollywood and the fashion world to turn it into New York’s most elegant park.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

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The Bowery Boys #179: The Fight For Bryant Park


The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

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William Cullen Bryant, photo taken by Matthew Brady


William Cullen Bryant in bust form, but Launt Thompson.  It seems this bust has made its way back to the Metropolitan Museum of Art!



William Cullen Bryant installed in his marble niche behind the New York Public Library.  This picture was taken in 1910, well before the radical redesign of the park in the 1930s. (Museum of the City of New York).



During World War I, the YMCA had a special ‘Eagle Hut’ built in the park for traveling servicemen. (Library of Congress)


A colorful depiction of the Bryant Park ‘demonstration gardens’ that were planted during the war. (Library of Congress)



Bryant Park in 1920. Looking west on 42nd Street at 6th Avenue (you can see the elevated railroad!) In the distance is One Times Square. Note the reappearance of the Chesterfield Cigarettes billboard from the picture above. (Museum of the City of New York)

Bryant Park in 1920. Looking west on 42nd Street at 6th Avenue (you can see the elevated railroad!) In the distance is One Times Square. (Museum of the City of New York)

Constructing a replica of Federal Hall in a barren Bryant Park. (Picture taken by the Wurts Brothers, Museum of the City of New York)

8x11mm_X2010_7_1_ 703

The Federal Hall reconstruction had a corporate sponsor — Sears Roebuck & Co.  Here’s how it looked in better days.  Believe it or not, the reproduction of Mount Vernon actually did get built in New York — in Prospect Park in Brooklyn!  (Bryant Park Corporation)


Bryant Park’s Federal Hall, May 1932. (Museum of the City of New York)

Bryant Park's Federal Hall, May 1932. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The interior of Bryant Park’s Federal Hall. (Museum of the City of New York)

The interior of Bryant Park's Federal Hall. (Museum of the City of New York)

The reconstruction of Bryant Park in 1934, overseen by new Parks Commissioner Robert Moses

The reconstruction of Bryant Park in 1934, overseen by new Parks Commissioner Robert Moses

This photo was taken by Stanley Kubrick during his years as a photographer for Look Magazine. The caption reads “Park Bench Nuisance [Woman reading a newspaper, while a man reads over her shoulder.]” Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

This photo was taken by Stanley Kubrick during his years as a photographer for Look Magazine. The caption reads "Park Bench Nuisance [Woman reading a newspaper, while a man reads over her shoulder.]" Courtesy Museum of the City of New York


People enjoying the New York Public Library’s outdoor reading room, 1930s. (New York Public Library)


Bryant Park at night, photo by Nathan Schwartz, taken in 1938. (New York Public Library)


The hedges of the central lawn, photo taken in 1957.  These were removed in the desperate effort to clean up the park in the late 1980s. (Library of Congress)


Bryant Park in the 1980s.  High walls allowed for suspicious behavior to occur in the at all hours of the day. (Bryant Park Conservancy)


Overlooking the new renovations in the late 1980s (Bryant Park Corporation)




Bryant Park after the clean-up, taken sometime in the 1990s. Photo by Carol Highsmith (Library of Congress)




Great overhead shots directly from the Bryant Park Conservancy!





George Washington’s inauguration and the 1939 World’s Fair

James Earle Fraser’s colossal Washington statue out in Queens. (NYPL)

Tomorrow (April 30th) is the 225th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington, sworn in at Federal Hall as the first President of the United States.  It is also the 75th anniversary of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  That was not an accident.

The monumental events of America’s founding would be immortalized by the fair in some rather unusual ways 150 years later.  Both April 30th events were occasions of great patriotic ceremony (and both even slightly kitschy) in their own ways.

April 1789
 It took George seven entire days to get to New York from his home in Mount Vernon, as his procession was met every step of the way with throngs of patriotic crowds and flamboyant celebratory displays.

Washington’s vice president John Adams had already arrived in New York, on April 21st.  The building which greeted him, the former City Hall building on Wall Street, had been the center of city’s government since 1699, when the British used materials from the city’s demolished north defense wall to construct it.

The heavily remodeled building which now stood in its place, later to be called Federal Hall, was designed by successful city contractor and former Continental Army engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant.  According to author David McCullough, “it was the first building in America designed to exalt the national spirit, in what would come to be known as the Federal style.” (Sadly, this building was ripped down in 1812; the ‘Federal Hall’ which stands in the same spot today was built as a customs house in 1842.)

L’Enfant would later work on the creation of Washington DC out of Maryland swampland.  He would ultimately be fired from that project — by George Washington.

George finally arrived in New York two days after Adams, April 23, via a barge from Elizabeth, New Jersey, and was met at the Wall Street pier by the current mayor of New York James Duane and the state’s governor George Clinton.

From there, he was taken to his new home on Cherry Street (long demolished, around near the Brooklyn Bridge anchorage today) and spent the day greeting dozens of well-wishers.  That night, Governor Clinton hosted an elaborate dinner in his honor; the pomp and extravagance by this time were probably getting tiresome to the stately Virginian farmer.

Meanwhile Adams spent the week at Federal Hall in Senate chambers, hashing out such things we take for granted — such as how to even address the new president — until at last they were ready for the ceremony to begin, on April 30.

According to Ron Chernow, “Washington rose early, sprinkled powder in his hair, and prepared for his great day.”  Like some detail from a fairy tale, Washington left his Cherry Street home at noon in a yellow carriage driven by white horses, legions of soldiers marching proudly behind him.

The streets of Manhattan were clogged with people, over ten thousand cramming Broad and Wall streets, as far as the eye could see both ways.  Sitting on the balcony of his own home on Wall Street was Washington’s closest confidante Alexander Hamilton, certainly reveling in the moment.

After greeting the Congress, Adams led Washington to the second floor balcony along with Robert Livingston, the Chancellor of New York (the highest judicial office in the state), who held out a bible owned by the St. John’s Lodge Freemasons and delivered the oath of office, probably not loud enough for anybody in the street to actually hear.

Washington, even less audibly than Livingston, swore to “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  He then possibly threw in a ‘so help me God’ for good measure (although there are many doubts that this occurred).

New Yorkers went crazy then, firing cannons, screaming and waving flags, playing music and dancing in the streets.  After returning inside to address the new Congress — by this time with tears in his eyes — Washington and his entourage went up Broadway to receive on invocation at St. Paul’s Church, the scrappy survivor of the great fire the destroyed much of the city in 1776.  Washington would be a regular here for his entire stay in New York; the pew where he planted himself for two years is still on display there (illustrated above).

Martha Washington would not arrive in town for another month, but that didn’t stop the parties.  The official inauguration ball took place a week later, on May 7th, at the Assembly Rooms at 115 Broadway.

Although a bit stiff and silent, George was still popular with the ladies and danced “two cotillions and a minuet,” often seen with Alexander Hamilton’s young bride Eliza. When Martha arrived on May 17, landing at Peck Slip, she was greeted with similarly grand fanfare, and yet another ball was held in her honor.

April 1939
One hundred and fifty years later, the 1939 World’s Fair opened in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, the second largest American fair up to that time (only St. Louis’ 1904 event was larger).

This celebration of human advancement — as demonstrated through miles of utopian kitsch and strikingly bizarre architecture — was a reason for Robert Moses to turn the unsightly Corona Ash Dumps into a Queens super-park.  The fair was advertisement as entertainment, with hundreds of modern gadgets displayed as novelties and staples of the future.

But the celebration was planned with the past in mind as well.  It opened on April 30, 1939, coinciding with another great day in New York City history — Washington’s inauguration.  That’s how important the city thought the opening of the fair was.  (Life Magazine was a little more cynical; in 1939, they refer to Washington as “the excuse” for the fair.  The purpose, of course, was profits.)

A 61-foot-tall statue of Washington by James Earle Fraser stood mightily over the fair’s Constitution Mall, peering perhaps quizzically at Paul Manship’s massive sundial sculpture.  A cluster of buildings called the Court of States recalled the Colonial architecture of Washington’s day.  Even Federal Hall was recreated.

Below: The World’s Fair presented a recreation of Washington’s inauguration, except with lots of flag dancing. (NYPL)

A replica of Mount Vernon (sort of) called Washington Hall was the pet project of a New Yorker with presidential ties.

According to the New Yorker, “Mr. Messmore Kendall, is responsible for the Hall.  Mr. Kendall, president of Sons of the American Revolution and owner of the Capitol Theatre, [developed] plans for erecting, entirely at his own expense, a $28,000 building to house a collection of Washington relics. Before the Fair closes, he expects the whole thing will have cost him more than $50,000. He has given more than money to the project; he has given the family cook, so that whenever he wants a home-cooked meal, he has to go all the hell out to Flushing.”

The Hall received a host of reenactors who had made their way up from Mount Vernon in emulation of Washington’s own footsteps.  On May 6th, a child named Robert E, Lee Williamson opened Washington Hall in a grand ceremony, bringing “three consecutive weeks of neo-Federal quaintness to a close.” [source]

The president also sits (sometimes awkwardly) upon a variety of World’s Fair merchandise.  Light shows and fireworks unheard of in Washington’s time were dedicated in his honor throughout the fair.  He even starred in a popular musical pageant at the fair called American Jubilee, with books and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. 

It was another great president who kicked off the fair 75 years ago.  With 200,000 people in attendance, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave an opening speech extolling the virtues of American ingenuity as he became the first president to be broadcast to television audiences.  Few had televisions in their homes at the time.  But NBC founder David Sarnoff helpfully scattered a few dozen of them throughout the city in a clever publicity stunt.

Roosevelt starts off his speech referencing Washington. “[T]here have been preserved for us many generations later, accounts of his taking of the oath of office on April thirtieth on the balcony of the old Federal Hall. ….. And so we, in New York, have a very personal connection with that thirtieth of April, one hundred and fifty years ago.” [Read the whole speech here.]

Defined by the odd Trylon and Perisphere buildings, the fair seems like something truly dreamlike.  The land where the fair once stood now contains the ruins of a New York’s other World’s Fair, the event from 1964-65.

For this article, I’ve re-purposed a couple pieces of writing I did on these events a few years ago.  The original pieces can be found here and here.

Charlie Chaplin on Wall Street: The tale behind the 1918 photo

The comedy legend Charlie Chaplin was born 125 years ago today in London, so I thought I’d use the opportunity to re-post one of my favorite photographs of Wall Street.

In the 1918 photo above, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks draw tens of thousands to Wall Street and the foot of the United States Sub Treasury building (i.e. today’s Federal Hall) to drum up support for World War I war bonds (or, more precisely, Liberty Bonds).
The United States had entered the conflict the prior year, on April 6, 1917, and began selling bonds to raise funds for the war effort.  Although many Americans were caught up in a patriot fervor, war bond sales were initially quite weak.  Most Americans in the late 1910s had never bought a bond of any kind.

To promote sales, the government began enlisting celebrities from several fields of entertainment, most notably motion pictures.  Since the New York area was filled with film stars — Hollywood not yet being the center of the film business — its streets were soon filled with dutiful movie stars, extolling the patriotic and moral virtues of supporting their county through bond sales.

My favorite instance of this was the sale of doughnuts — considered a symbol of wartime — on the street by glamorous movie stars like Martha Mansfield.  The Sub Treasury building, New York’s largest bond repository, was often the center of such rallies and fund drives.  (There were even doughnut auctions held on the steps here.)  It made sense to bring the biggest stars to the Sub Treasury to drum up the most publicity.
And so, on April 9, 1918, as the New York Tribune headline goes, “20,000 Throng Wall Street to Hear Movie Stars Tell How To Win War.”
Chaplin threw himself into the war effort, embarking on a nationwide tour to promote the sale of bonds.  That year he would make a propaganda film called The Bond:

But there may have been a bit of self-promotion in his appearance at the Sub Treasury.  His film A Dog’s Life would conveniently open in movie theaters five days later.

People weren’t used to hearing their movie stars speak in 1918.  “I never made a speech before in my life,” he proclaimed through a megaphone that noon, standing in front of the statue of George Washington. “But I believe I can make one now.”

The dashing Fairbanks — known for swashbucklers and romances — happily broke character, goofing around with Chaplin to the delight of the crowd.  “Folks, I’m so hoarse from urging people to buy Liberty bonds that I can hardly speak.”

As eager as audiences were to hear their matinee idols, it was their horseplay that caused the greatest satisfaction:

“It was difficult for the lay ear to determine whether Chaplin or Fairbanks got the most enthusiastic reception.   But there one was feature that got more than either. That was the combination of Chaplin and Fairbanks.   The later carried the former around on his shoulders, and the 20,000-odd crowd howled with delight.”

Afterwards, Fairbanks and vocalist Harvey Hindemeyer led the crowd in a rendition of “Over There,” the American war anthem written by Broadway impresario George M. Cohan the previous year. (The story behind that song was featured in our podcast on the birth of the Broadway musical.)

Mary Pickford was also on a war bonds tour through America at this time.  The following year, Pickford, her secret lover Fairbanks, Chaplin and the film director D.W. Griffith would start the film studio United Artists.

Solomon Northup’s ominous journey to New York City, 1841

An engraving featured in Solomon Northup’s narrative Twelve Years A Slave, published in 1853.

The New York farmer and musician Solomon Northup was sold into slavery in 1841, tricked by two supposed members of a circus troupe, promising Northrup work in their traveling show.  Instead, Northrup awoke in bondage, eventually smuggled to New Orleans where he faced years of cruel servitude under a variety of plantation owners.   After regaining his freedom in 1853, he wrote the narrative Twelve Years A Slave, his harrowing account of his years in the South.

The book became a best-seller within Republican abolitionist circles, released a year after Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  It was certainly in the possession of Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet’s younger brother, who turned his Brooklyn pulpit at Plymouth Church into a sounding board for abolitionist ideas.  (One hundred and sixty years later, the Oscar-nominated film version of Twelve Years A Slave, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup, played at Brooklyn Heights Cinema, located one block away from Beecher’s church.)

Northup and his family lived in upstate New York, but New York City proper plays a small but ominous role in his narrative.  Lured by the promise of employment by two men named Brown and Hamilton, Northup travels from home in Saratoga, first to Albany, then to New York itself:

“They hurried forward, without again stopping to exhibit, and in due course of time, we reached New-York, taking lodgings at a house on the west side of the city, in a street running from Broadway to the river.”

Below: A view of Broadway (between Howard and Grand Streets) in 1840.  To the south of this view was Canal Street and Five Points.

“I supposed my journey was at an end, and expected in a day or two at least, to return to my friends and family at Saratoga.   Brown and Hamilton, however, began to importune me to continue with them to Washington.  They alleged that immediately on their arrival, now that the summer season was approaching, the circus would set out for the north.   They promised me a situation and high wages if I would accompany them.  

Largely did they expatiate on the advantages that would result to me, and such were the flattering representations they made, that I finally concluded the offer.”

Northup agrees to accompany them further north to Washington DC.  It would be there that Northup would be drugged and sold into bondage by his two nefarious companions.  But before they leave New York, they suggest that Solomon perform a certain task, curious given the subsequent events which occurred:

“The next morning they suggested that, inasmuch as we were about entering a slave State, it would be well, before leaving New-York, to procure free papers.  The idea struck me as a prudent one, though I think it would scarcely have occurred to me, had they not proposed it. 

We proceeded at once to what I understood to be the Custom House. They made oath to certain facts showing I was a free man.” 

Why is there a little confusion in Northrup’s statement regarding the Custom House?  Perhaps because the building he would have visited — at 22-24 Wall Street — was in its final days as New York’s Custom House, an office which had grown far too small for the task.  The following year, New York’s new Custom House would have at last been opened at the other end of the block — the building that is today’s Federal Hall.

Below: Northrup and his associates would have entered the building at the far right of this illustration (which depicts Wall Street in 1825)

“Some further formalities were gone through with before it was completed, when, paying the officer two dollars, I placed the papers in my pocket, and started with my two friends to our hotel.  I thought at the time, I must confess, that the papers were scarcely worth the cost of obtaining them – the apprehension of danger to my personal safety never having suggested itself to me in the remotest manner.”

Below: The interior of the New York Custom House, 1853

All images courtesy New York Public Library

After its publication in 1853, Northup’s account would be available for sale in certain New York bookstores for several years.  But keep in mind New York’s divided loyalties to the South; it would not have been a universally popular read here in the city.

Below: the book for sale in 1854 at a bookstore at 308 Broadway, and in 1856, at a Park Row bookseller, both ads from the New York Daily Tribune

NYC’s wartime doughnut history, from Irving’s olykoeks to the Union Square battleship and a $25,000 doughnut

Today is National Doughnut Day which is not a real holiday or something that people should not celebrate very emphatically. However you will be surprised to learn that this day traces its roots to the Salvation Army and World War I.

To provide for the American troops fighting in France in 1917-18, Salvation Army workers set up small tents or ‘huts’, providing the comforts of home, with nourishing meals, a quiet place to write letters or to get clothing mended.  There were actually several dozen of these Salvation Army huts already set up in the United States near military bases so the tradition was simply transferred over to Europe when the war began, with workers often setting up huts in abandoned or even bombed-out buildings.

Above: Keep those lassies on the job, making the doughnuts! A recruitment poster from 1918. Below: A doughboy eating a doughnut on a 1919 magazine cover. (LOC)


What brings greater pleasure than a baked good? But the Salvation Army couldn’t transport large baking ovens, so they improvised with the doughnut, deep-frying dough on small portable stoves.

The round pastry was not invented by the Salvation Army.  Indeed, Washington Irving himself is credited with the first mention of the doughnut in print back in 1809. Regaling on old Dutch custom, he writes “[I]t was always sure to boast of an enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat, and called dough-nuts, or oly koeks: a delicious kind of cake, at present known scarce to this city, except in genuine Dutch families.”

Above: A scene from the Knickerbocker Kitchen in 1864 (NYPL)

Due to their ease of preparation, doughnuts became associated with wartime cuisine.  But even the original Dutch ‘oly koeks’ made a wartime return as well, brought back as a fund-raiser during the Civil War, sold during the 1964 Metropolitan Fair in the Knickerbocker Kitchen, a sort-of theme restaurant where Dutch delights were sold.  Interestingly, the Knickerbocker pavilion was located just off of Union Square. Many decades later, the doughnut would return to Union Square for yet another war-related pageant.

In 1917, during World War I, the U.S. Navy set up a curious recruitment tool in Union Square — a life size wooden battleship called, appropriately, the USS Recruit.

Courtesy Library of Congress
Courtesy Library of Congress

Once the war was over, the Salvation Army thought it would be a kind gesture to those New Yorkers were fought in the war to recreate their welcoming war huts. And it made natural sense to set one up here in Union Square, next to the wooden battleship and conveniently located near their headquarters on West 14th Street (still there today).

The Salvation Army’s Union Square hut opened for business January 12, 1919, with a grand ceremony around the USS Recruit and military officers from the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  Inside Salvation Army workers were busily preparing the doughnuts, using the same tools as on the battlefield.  It was led by Adjutant Violet McAllister, one of the original “doughnut sweethearts” of the war, with “flour on her nose and a great white apron over her khaki uniform.

That day over 1,000 doughnuts were prepared, many for soldiers returning from the war.  In emulation of the war front huts, the Union Square edition was “open every day for reading, writing and gossip, with doughnut and coffee for 10 cents for all men in uniform.” [source]

Above: Silent film star and New Yorker Martha Mansfield sells doughnuts for $1 apiece on the streets of New York during a fundraiser for the Salvation Army. (LOC)

To those at home, observing the battles of World War I from afar, the doughnut became a symbol of the war effort (although the word doughboy is not related.)  A month before the Treaty of Versailles was signed, Salvation Army volunteers sold doughnuts on street corners throughout the city and even auctioned off doughnuts on the steps of the Sub-Treasury Building (today’s Federal Hall), with one doughnut being sold for $25,000!

Below: The doughnuts were prepared at the Hotel Commodore, Lexington and 42nd Street.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York


By 1920, the battleship — and I assume the doughnut hut as well — were dismantled.  In 1938, two decades after World War I, the Salvation Army started National Doughnut Day as a fundraiser and in honor of its phalanx of busy doughnut makers.

New Yorkers of course no longer needed to associate this food with wartime activities as the pastry soon sprang up at every lunch corner and automat in town.

Below: Mayfair Doughnut under the elevated at 32-36 Greenwich Street (courtesy NYPL)

A doughnut eating contest from 1922. I’m not sure this is from New York City, but how could I overlook this hilarious picture? (LOC)



The Cosby Show: A despotic governor in colonial New York and the sensational trial of John Peter Zenger

PODCAST A long, long time ago in New York — in the 1730s, back when the city was a holding of the British, with a little over 10,000 inhabitants — a German printer named John Peter Zenger decided to print a four-page newspaper called the New York Weekly Journal.

 This is pretty remarkable in itself, as there was only one other newspaper in town called the New York Gazette, an organ of the British crown and the governor of the colony. (Equally remarkable: Benjamin Franklin almost worked there!) But Zenger’s paper would call to question the actions of that governor, a virtual despot named William Cosby (at right), and in so doing, set in motion an historic trial that marked a triumph for liberty and modern democratic rights, including freedom of the press and the power of jury nullification.

This entire story takes place in lower Manhattan, and most of it on a couple floors of old New York City Hall at Wall Street and Nassau Street. Many years later, this spot would see the first American government and the inauguration of George Washington.

But many could argue that the trial that occurs here on August 4, 1735, is equally important to the causes of democracy and a free press.

And somehow, we manage to fit Kim Kardashian into this.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to straight from here:
The Bowery Boys: John Peter Zenger and the Power of the Press

CORRECTION: I can’t read my Olde English very well.  In reading from a page of the New-York Weekly Journal, I inadvertently say ‘Fulgom Panagenics’ instead of ‘Fulsom Panagenics’. Fulgom is not a word, fulsom(e) is, meaning very complimentary or flattering.


An artfully stained copy of the New-York Weekly Journal from 1733

 Andrew Hamilton, the lawyer who saved the day in the John Peter Zenger trial. His eloquence and command of language helped win the day for lovers of free press.