Tag Archives: George Washington

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 225th 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

Perilous Night: The Great Fire of 1776

PODCAST The circumstances surrounding the Great Fire of 1776, the events of the Revolutionary War leading up to the disaster, and the tragic tale of the American patriot Nathan Hale.

A little after midnight on September 21, 1776, the Fighting Cocks Tavern on Whitehall Street caught on fire. The drunken revelers inside the tavern were unable to stop the blaze, and it soon raged into a dangerous inferno, spreading up the west side of Manhattan.

Some reports state that the fire started accidentally in the tavern fireplace. But was it actually set on purpose – on the orders of George Washington?spy

To understand that damning speculation, we unfurl the events that lead up to that moment – from the first outrages against the British by American colonists to the first sparks of the Revolutionary War. Why did New York get caught up so early in the war and what were the circumstances that led to the city falling into British hands?

Underneath this expansive story is another, smaller story – that of a young man on a spy mission, sent by Washington into enemy territory.  His name was Nathan Hale, and his fate would intersect with the disastrous events of September 21, 1776.

PLUS:  The legacy of St. Paul’s Chapel, a lasting reminder not only of the Great Fire of 1776 but of an even greater disaster which occurred almost exactly 225 years later.

AND: Find out what Alexander Hamilton was up to in September 1776!

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The Bowery Boys #191: THE GREAT FIRE OF 1776


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The escape of the Continental Army from Long Island under cover of night. This illustration by Henry Alexander Ogden is from 1897.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library


The house of Roger Morris which George Washington took over as his headquarters after fleeing New York.

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

The Morris-Jumel Mansion, depicted in a postcard in 1965.

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


An imagining of young Alexander Hamilton in uniform in 1776

Courtesy the Department of Defense
Courtesy the Department of Defense

A Harpers Magazine illustration by Howard Pyle from 1880, depicting Nathan Hale receiving the details of his spy mission directly from General Washington.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

A beautiful map from 1897 laying out the events of the Battle of Harlem Heights on September 16, 1776.

Courtesy Internet Archives Book Imaging
Courtesy Internet Archives Book Imaging

The Battle of Harlem Heights with a look into the valley called the Hollow Way.



This is New York is 1776, the city that was captured in September 1776.

British Library
British Library

A grave illustration showing the severity of the fire, looking at the burning buildings on the west side of Broadway.

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

A map delineating the path of the fire from Whitehall Street up the west side of the city.


The ruins of Trinity Church stood for  years as evidenced by this image of people just strolling around it like nothing weird had happened.

Internet Archive Book Imaging
Internet Archive Book Imaging

Another illustration (from a 1902 history) showing the cemetery in relation to the ruins.



Mount Pleasant, where the British general William Howe set up headquarters and where Nathan Hale was taken after he was captured.

New York Public LIbrary
New York Public LIbrary


A vintage trading-card depiction of Nathan Hale’s hanging.



An 1880 illustration by Howard Pyle of the same event.

Courtesy New York Public LIbrary
Courtesy New York Public LIbrary


St Paul’s Chapel (pictured below in 19160, a survivor of the Great Fire of 1776, opened its doors to parishioners the day after the fire.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York


The statue of Nathan Hale which stands in front of City Hall. He’s been moved around quite a bit since his installation here on November 25, 1893, the anniversary of Evacuation Day.

From 1900:

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

From 1911:

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

From 1913:

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

From 1920:

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

From 1939:

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

From 2006:

Courtesy Kris Long/Flickr
Courtesy Kris Long/Flickr

The Convent of Central Park and a famous Revolutionary War site

Pictured above is a remarkable structure that once dominated the scenery on the northern side of Central Park. This was the Academy of Saint Vincent on a hill that bore its name.  Located on the northern portion of the park, next to the charming Harlem Meer (and nearest 103rd Street), the Academy sat nestled amid a collection of hills and bluffs left over from its original pre-park topography.

Below: House on the hill: the stark and mysterious convent of Central Park, 1861


A narrow passage next to the convent was named McGown’s Pass after Andrew McGown, owner of a popular tavern that sat alongside here called the Black Horse Tavern**.

It was through McGown’s Pass that George Washington traveled on September 15, 1776. He and a portion of the Continental Army had escaped up to today’s Washington Heights area; when hearing that part of his army had been stopped by the British, Washington rode down the pass and led the remaining troops back up to their fortification in the Heights. He rode back through the pass again seven years later, this time as the victor.

The British and their Hessian mercenaries built forts here to cut Manhattan off from the mainland. Later New Yorkers would seize upon this idea during the early days of the War of 1812. Not willing to become property of the British once again, Manhattan mobilized for any potential battles, building forts all over the island and throughout the harbor.

It was here at McGown’s Pass that a couple fortifications were built, including Fort Clinton (not to be confused with the fort in Battery Park, although both were named for DeWitt Clinton) and Fort Fish, named after Major Nicholas Fish, father of the New York senator Hamilton Fish.

Nothing much remains of these two old forts, which were never used as the war thankfully never made its way to the city. There are, however, two remaining structures from the early days.

A stone ledge overlooking the meer is all that remains of Nutter’s Battery, named after a farmer who owned the property. And nearby stands the Block House, its stone face still fairly solid, once armed with cannons and used to hold ammunition — that were, of course, never needed. The Block House was fairly intact when Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux included it in their plans for the new park, incorporating the existing building as a ‘picturesque ruin’ covered in vines.

Here’s an illustration of how the Block House looked in 1860:

Before there was a park, however, there were nuns. In 1847 the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul arrived at the still-bucolic region of Manhattan and opened the Academy of St. Vincent, a school and convent.

The nuns left when the area was incorportated into the park, however the building remained standing and utilized for several purposes. During the Civil War, it was briefly used as a hospital; later, it was a “restaurant and hostelry,” with some certainly spectacular views for guests.

Below: Some sculptured works of Thomas Crawford in the interior of Mount St. Vincent’s Convent, Central Park, north end.]


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

The stone chapel was even refashioned as an gallery for artwork and “stuffed specimens of animals of considerable value.” Unfortunately, the structures were destroyed in a fire in 1881. (This site has some great pictures of where the convent once stood.)

Below: The buildings on the hill, circa 1863. By this time, the Catholic sisters had moved onto a new location in the Bronx (from Wikimedia)


While the convent was gone by the 1880s, the area was not through with McGown or his old tavern. Although the Black Horse Tavern had been torn down decades earlier, a two-story refreshment pavilion was constructed at this site — “heated throughout by steam and lighted with Edison’s incandescent lights” — and later renamed McGown’s Pass Tavern.

In 1895, McGown’s was strangely granted its own election district as, being inside the park, it lay outside normal district boundaries. “There were four voters in this territory last year,” declared the New York Times. “They are four men employed at McGown’s Pass Tavern.” The tavern was eventually torn down in the late 1910s.

Below: McGown’s Pass Tavern (date unknown, but possibly around the early 1910s)

This is a bit tangental, but I love this story. A plaque was erected at the old site of Fort Clinton in 1906 and unveiled in a publicized community event for children. It was apparently difficult for some people to find the location and “several chivalrous lads” guided people through the park to the unveiling.

However, the Times reports an incident that might be the only real battle that ever occured at this storied historical spot:

“Among the boys interested in the tablet unveiling were several whose spirit of mischief overcame their sense of the proprieties. These made misleading arrow signs …. and caused a number of persons to go far afield and arrive at the exercises late and angry. These mischievous youngsters were caught at their annoying trick by boys who were more sober and serious. Then there was a short scrimmage, and the mischievous lads scurried away through the Park.”

Finally, from a 19th century book on the War of 1812 comes this spectacular map of the various fortifications built in anticipation of battle. Its dimensions are greatly distorted of course, but it lists the forts and blockhouses that stood in this area as well as those such as Fort Gansevoort and Fort Greene (click on the image to look at it more closely):

**This story originally ran in 2011. All pictures courtesy the New York Public Library except where otherwise noted

Gotham Court and the Lower East Side neighborhood of Cherry Hill

Yesterday I went searching for remnants of the old Cherry Hill neighborhood. There are none, as far as I could tell.

It’s not the first New York City neighborhood to entirely vanish in the rush of progress — is it, Robert Moses ? — however it may be the one that began with the most impressive pedigree.

Cherry and Catherine streets, looking towards the Manhattan Bridge anchorage, in the once glorious Cherry Hill neighborhood. Pic courtesy Knickerbocker Village, who guesses photo to be from 1920s)


I’m not referring to the part of Central Park called Cherry Hill or even the upstate farm of Cherry Hill, best known for the prominent New York family the Van Rensselaers.

Downtown Manhattan’s Cherry Hill once lay near the waterfront in the area more literally called Two Bridges today, between the Brooklyn Bridge and the area just northeast of the Manhattan Bridge.  The Two Bridges Historical District was created in 2003, just to the north of the site of old Cherry Hill.  Indeed there is nothing much left of the Cherry Hill neighborhood at all.


In 1890 Jacob Riis, in documenting what the neighborhood had become, referred to its early days as the “proud and fashionable Cherry Hill.” (pictured below)

Named for a Dutch cherry orchard, Cherry Hill featured a row of homes with a beautiful vista of the East River and hosted no less than George Washington‘s during his first term as president, at 1 Cherry Street.  Although he later moved to 39 Broadway, the neighborhood remained high on the list of the rich and important, including John Hancock (at 5 Cherry Street) and DeWitt Clinton (who moved into Washington’s old home).

Below: An illustration of the more genteel days of Cherry Hill, taken from the book When Old New York Was Young (written in 1902)

Courtesy Internet Archives Book Images
Courtesy Internet Archives Book Images

Even as late as the 1824, the area featured fine homes such as that of Samuel Leggett, founder of the New York Gas Light Company (later Con Edison), who enjoyed New York’s first interior gas lighting. Here’s a picture of the first gas-lit home at 7 Cherry Street. (More information here)


If you’re looking for a symbolic date of Cherry Hill’s demise, look no further than April 3, 1823, birth date of William ‘Boss’ Tweed, who was born here and worked at a Cherry Hill chair shop in his early years.

Below: Mullen’s Alley in Cherry Hill, picture taken by Jacob Riis in 1890. Courtesy the Museum of the City of New York



As many well-to-do neighborhoods would later do, Cherry Hill devolved into a slum, paralleling the decline of nearby Five Points. Its well-intentioned tenements soon became the worst in the city.

Located in the Fourth Ward, Cherry Hill abutted the saloons, boarding houses and brothels along Water Street, including the legendary Hole In The Wall (today’s Bridge Cafe). None of this would assist the neighborhood in escaping its fate.

Below: Blindman’s Alley at 22 Cherry Street, taken by Jacob Riis

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

Cherry Hill is most unfortunately known for its most horrific slum — Gotham Court, “one of the worst tenements along the East River.” It would later be made infamous in Jacob Riis’ renown 1890 blistering survey of How The Other Half Lives.  According to Riis:

“It is curious to find that this notorious block, whose name was so long synonymous with all that was desperately bad, was originally built (in 1851) by a benevolent Quaker for the express purpose of rescuing the poor people from the dreadful rookeries they were then living in.”

Below: photo from Gotham Court by Jacob Riis, 1890. “Minding the baby; Baby yells a Whirlwind Scream, Gotham Court.”




How long Gotham Court continued to be a so-called model tenement is not on record. It could not have been very long, for already in 1862, ten years after it was finished, a sanitary official counted 146 cases of sickness in the court, including “all kinds of infectious disease,” from small-pox down.”

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

In 1894, the New York Tribune went as far as to make several attempts to describe Gotham Court as a prison. From the piece ‘Life in Gotham Court’:

“The side alleys are narrower. They are not more than three or four feet wide.  In order to enter either of these alleys one has to pass through an iron arch.  The gate has been taken away, but enough remains to give unpleasant suggestions of a penitentiary…..

The idea is not dissipated by the appearance of the houses inside the alley.  The small windows with tiny panes of glass, the low, dark doors, through which iron gratings can be seen, and the bare brick walls are like those of a prison.  The people move about free, as the prisoners do during ‘exercise hour’ at the Tombs.  All the doors are alike, all the windows are alike, and all are dilapidated, forlorn and forbidding.”


Gotham Court and the rest of Cherry Hill were not long for this world. In the wake of Riis expose, Gotham Court was demolished in 1897. By that time, efforts were made to construct more amenable tenements, including those built at 340, 342 and 344 Cherry Street in 1888. (See below, courtesy of Maggie Blanck)

By that time, the anchorage to the Brooklyn Bridge — and in 1909, with the Manhattan Bridge anchorage — would block in the neighborhood from the circulation of the city. The construction of traffic ramps to the Brooklyn Bridge and the downtown section of the FDR Drive (opened in 1942) obliterated much of what remained.

In its place would be more ambitious housing “super projects,” most notably one in the form of the Alfred E. Smith Houses, built in 1953 and named for the governor and saavy politico born very close by, at 25 Oliver Street. His old street and a couple around it may give you the closest idea of what some areas of Cherry Hill may have looked like in earlier years.

Two maps — one block of tenements in Cherry Hill in 1890 (from a map by Jacob Riis) and a Google map of the same block today:



Given its rather uniform appearance, I found it quite impossible to picture Cherry Hill’s early days here.


A shortened version of this article originally ran August 18, 2008. I’ve left the comments from that original run as they relate to the history.

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


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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!





Richmond Hill: West Village’s former Vice Presidential mansion and the lonely refuge of Aaron Burr

[Richmond Hill, residence of Aaron Burr.]

Richmond Hill, the spacious mansion and 26-acre estate on the outskirts of town that had once been George Washington‘s headquarters and later the home of John Adams, was also home to another vice president — Aaron Burr.  This was the place he lived on that fateful day, July 11, 1804, when he entered into a duel with Alexander Hamilton.

Here’s a lovely description of the home from an 1861 biography of Burr by author James Parton:

“[Burr’s] style of living kept pace with his increasing income.  In a few years we find him master of Richmond Hill, the mansion where Washington had lived in 1776, with grounds reaching to the Hudson, with ample gardens, and a considerable extent of grove and farm.  Here he maintained a liberal establishment and exercised the hospitality which was then in vogue.

The one particular in which Richmond Hill surpassed the other houses of equal pretensions, was its library.  From his college days, Colonel Burr had been a zealous buyer of books, and his stock had gone on increasing till, on attaining to the dignity of householder, he was able to give to his miscellaneous collection something of the completeness of a library.

It is evident enough, from his correspondence, that his favorite ethos were still those whom the ‘well-constituted minds’ of that day regarded with admiring horror.  The volumes of Gibbon’s History [The Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire] were appearing in those years, striking the orthodox world with wonder and dismay.  They had a very hearty welcome in the circle at Richmond Hill.”

—  the Life and Times of Aaron Burr, by James Parton, 1861

After the duel, Burr liquidated his assets, selling Richmond Hill to John Jacob Astor.  With the grounds heavily cut up and sold, he had the mansion rolled on logs to the newly carved street corner and turned into a theater and opera house.  At this time, he also moved the carriage house further north, where it was later re-purposed and today houses the romantic restaurant One If By Land, Two If By Sea.

It made for a very sumptuous opera house, it appears.  According to author Eric Homberger, “Boxes at the Richmond Hill were furnished as though they were an extension of the elegant parlors of St. John’s Park, with ‘light blue hangings, gilded panels and cornice, arm-chairs, and a sofa.'”

It was parallel in style, perhaps, to the Astor Place Opera House across town.   Eventually it deteriorated into a lowly roadhouse and saloon — but certainly, the most gorgeous one in town — called the Tivoli Saloon before being torn down in 1849.

Richmond Hill House or Theater.

Today the site of Richmond Hill and its former ground are occupied by this building, currently the home of WNYC, and the surrounding blocks of this area of the far West Village.

Top image courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

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.

AMC’s ‘Turn’: The next great New York history TV show?

BBC America’s Copper, depicting the grit and crime of 1860s New York, was recently cancelled (although petitions are currently circulating, demanding a Season Three).

But the void of history-related television will soon be filled again with Turn, AMC’s Revolutionary War-era drama on George Washington’s spy network, called The Culper Ring.  What do you think?

Although this clearly depicts a variety of locations pivotal to the American Revolution, much of Washington’s spy ring was located near British headquarters — namely New York and the surrounding area.  So the show should eventually turn its attention to the city in the Revolutionary era.

We’re sure to see not only the bustling, over-crowded streets around St. Paul’s Church and Bowling Green — possibly even the ruins from the 1776 fire which incinerated almost a fourth of the city — but imagined locations in Long Island and Westchester.

You’re not seeing things — that’s Jamie Bell (aka Billy Elliott) as the leader of the spy ring Abraham Woodhull (aka Samuel Culper).

They’ll certainly take a lot of liberties given the secrecy of the Culper Ring.  I can’t wait to see how they depict the most intriguing alleged member of the gang — Agent 355.  The show is set to air in early 2014.

And although though it’s not set in New York, if you like history and mobsters, check out Mob City tonight on TNT, set in Los Angeles in the 1940s and based on John Buntin’s excellent book L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City.

And speaking of George Washington, today marks the 230th anniversary of the General’s farewell speech to the officers of the Continental Army, given at Fraunces Tavern just days after the British were permanently expelled from New York in 1783.

His toast to his men: “With a heart full of love and gratitude, I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”

There was not a dry eye in the house.

For more information, give our podcast on Fraunces Tavern a listen. The building has a fascinating, even dizzying history.

Below: Fraunces Tavern’s lonely dining hall, deputed by artist Thomas Wakeman in 1850.


Ten cool facts about ice cream and New York City history PLUS: where was New York’s first frozen yogurt shop?

Lewis Wickes’ photograph of a few children enjoying a bit of ice cream on a hot day, 1910. (NYPL)

1. America’s first ice cream shop was located on Dock Street** (roughly today’s Pearl Street) in 1774.  The British confectioner Philip Lenzi advertised ice cream of “any sort”, along with a host of treats, including sugar plums, jams and sweetmeats.

2.  Hanover Square (near Stone and Pearl streets) was the center of commerce in colonial New York, and apparently of confections as well.  In 1777, in the midst of British-occupied New York during the Revolutionary War, Lenzi moved his shop up into Hanover Square next to another ice cream shop owned by Joseph Corree at 120 Hanover Square. [source]

3. George Washington and his wife Martha were huge fans of ice cream.  During the first year of Washington’s presidency, back in 1789, when the seat of government resided in New York, Martha would make several batches of it from the Washington’s home at One Cherry Street She sometimes complained of the lack of fresh cream, sometimes serving “unusually stale and rancid” desserts at her weekly tea parties.  One well-repeated legend states that the Washington’s spent over $700 on ice cream desserts in the summer of 1789.

Above: A 1803 map of Vauxhall Garden, at Broome Street between the Bowery and Broadway, a lovely place to enjoy a bowl of ice cream in early New York

4. Manhattan’s pleasure gardens — early precursors to the modern park — became instrumental in spreading the joy of ice cream.  The aforementioned Joseph Corree opened the Mount Vernon Garden at Broadway and Leonard Street in 1800, a few months after ice cream-lovin’ Washington died at his estate in Mount Vernon.

On top of the many festive entertainments at the garden — fireworks, theatricals, topiary, tableaux vivant — Corree also offered ice cream for sale.  Other popular pleasure gardens of the day, such Vauxhall Garden and Niblo’s Garden, would follow suit.

5. Delmonico’s, before it became the finest name in restaurant dining in New York in the 19th century, got its start as a small confectionery shop on 23 William Street in 1827 which featured ice cream on its menu. (Learn more about Delmonico’s from my podcast on its history.)

6. Ice cream vendors were on the streets of New York as early as the 1820s, the best way for less affluent people to enjoy the dessert.  Within a couple decades, of course, the ‘pleasure gardens’ would lose their patina of class and become playgrounds for poorer New Yorkers.  In 1852, one garden near the Bowery was described as “a sort of ice-creamery, and general rendezvous for the Bowery fashionables.” [source]

At right: A Century Magazine illustration from 1901 of a New York ice cream vendor or ‘hokey pokey man’ (NYPL)

7. Ice cream saloons, by mid-19th century, were aplenty along the main thoroughfares of New York, experimenting with different kinds of production.  One saloon, Parkinson’s on Broadway, claims to have invented pistachio ice cream.  Another, the Patent Steam Ice Cream Saloon, named for its steam-operated freezing unit, catered to the women of the middle class, “the wives and daughters of the substantial tradesmen, mechanics and artisans of the day,” according to New York by Gas-Light.

A Brooklyn confectioner ad from 1876:

8. The hokey pokey men, the nickname for one-cent ice cream street vendors, were briefly hindered by the Ice Cream Strike of 1913, a walkout by all 2,500 members of the Ice Cream Workers Union in New York, effectively shutting down the production of ice cream, especially in the Lower East Side.  The strike lasted several weeks.

Below: A Macy’s ad in 1913 for a home ice-cream maker:

9. Ice Cream Profiteering or Newspaper Self-Promotion?  After the war, many merchants continued to sell massively overpriced ice cream.  The Evening World reported in 1921 that “profits from ice cream range from 500 to 1,000 percent” at a survey of local ice cream vendors.  “In few articles of food has there been found any greater evidence of extortion from the consumer.” [source]

A few days later, the newspaper extolled upon its own crack reporting, claiming that ice cream prices were going down because of their investigations.  “Hundreds of manufacturers and retails have already cut prices,” the World boasted.

10. Haagen-Dazs Ice Cream was not created anywhere near Scandinavia, but rather in the Bronx, the product of two Polish-Jewish confectioners Reuben and Rose Mattus.  The official reason for the name was “to convey an aura of the old-world traditions and craftsmanship to which he remained dedicated.” Reuben later admitted, “We wanted people to take a second look and say, ‘Is this imported?'”

The first Haagen-Dazs ice cream shop, which opened in 1976, is located at 120 Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. The store is still going strong.

EXTRA: Frozen yogurt was the original cronut The trendy dessert was first sold over the counter in New York at Bloomingdale’s Department Store in the early 1970s.  As far as I can tell, the first actual yogurt store in the city — the first of many — was the Dannon Yogurt Store at 207 East 86th Street, opening in February 1975.

That was the year that New Yorkers first went WILD for frozen yogurt, well at least according to the New York Times (but you know how they are with trend stories!)

Yogurt: “It’s the biggest thing since hamburgers and chicken,” according to one fast-food executive in 1976.

**There were two Dock Streets back in old New York, so it’s possible (although more unlikely) the original shop could have been on the other one, which is near today’s Water Street and Coenties Slip.

For more sweet New York City history, check out my prior articles on:
New York and the history of soda fountains
New York, World War I and the history of the doughnut

‘My American Revolution’: Imagining 1776 surrounding us

BOWERY BOYS BOOK OF THE MONTH Each month I’ll pick a book — either brand new or old, fiction or non-fiction — that offers an intriguing take on New York City history, something that uses history in a way that’s uniquely unconventional or exposes a previously unseen corner of our city’s complicated past.  Then over the next month, I’ll run an article or two about some of historical themes that are brought up in the selection. 

My American Revolution
by Robert Sullivan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Is it possible to see evidence of the Revolutionary War upon the present landscape of New York City?  Well, not really, but then that’s what makes “My American Revolution” by Robert Sullivan such rollicking, curmudgeonly fun.

As he proved in his 2008 book ‘Rats‘, Sullivan has no trouble extracting stories from difficult situations. In ‘My American Revolution’, the challenge isn’t as unsanitary as rooting around for vermin, but it proves equally elusive — re-tracing the steps of America’s forefathers as their paths wound through New York and New Jersey during the Revolutionary War.

This region’s role in the war of 1776 is sometimes overshadowed by the grander battles of Bunker Hill, Yorktown or Lexington and Concord, and possibly with some justification — the earliest battles here were failures for the Continental Army.  But New Jersey provides some of the most profound imagery of the war, while New York, already a broken war-torn landscape by the end of 1776, will provide refrain of war’s end with George Washington‘s arrival in New York and his subsequent inauguration here as the first President of the United States.

Sullivan has written a travelogue of lost courses, attempting to follow the footsteps of Washington and others. More importantly, his interest leads him to the many others who have attempted this in the past.

‘My American Revolution’ is a celebration of Revolutionary War reenacting in all its forms, nobly wrought, pop cultural or otherwise. He begins with the greatest reenactment of all time — the famous “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, painted in a faraway gallery in Germany.

Its enduring appeal has influenced other artists, but more importantly has inspired decades of actual reenactment on the Delaware River.  Sullivan digs into the curious, sometimes cheesy tales of past faux George Washingtons, including one (the “flamboyantSt. John Terrell) who was accused of using the annual crossing emulation as a way to promote his line of movie theaters. At right: Terrell in 1956, courtesy David Hanauer.

The war has inspired an entire world of bizarre recreations, from a 1932 reenactment of Washington’s swearing-in in Bryant Park (using a model of Federal Hall) to an emulation of the Battle of Brooklyn using kids on bicycles.  Somebody once recreated David Bushnell‘s early submarine named the Turtle.  Given its shape, the recreated version was called the Acorn.  There are even reenactments of reenactments.

But the boldest reenactments are by Sullivan himself, who gamely attempts to walk in the footsteps of Washington’s Continental Army as they fled through New Jersey and later even tries to remount Washington’s boat ride into Manhattan.

Below: The miniature Federal Hall built in Bryant Park, 1932

That last attempt at re-creating the past slams right into our modern era of homeland security. Throughout, Sullivan finds ways to connect with theses past events and the impossibility of ever re-doing them exactly due to an ever-changing city.

There is still solid evidence of the opening chords of American independence — from a flagpole in Brooklyn Heights to the streets of downtown Manhattan — but ‘My American Revolution’ mostly proves the most faithful reproduction is in the mind.

This book was recommended by a reader. (Thanks Mark!)  If you have a suggestion for a recent book relating to New York City history that we will consider for this fall, just send me an email at boweryboysnyc@earthlink.net