Federal Hall National Memorial


Edification value  4/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 33 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Steampunk lock

The steampunky goodness of the “Damon’s Patent Lock Mechanism” guarding the Customs House vaults.  Even the bolts are pretty.

Federal Hall National Memorial, Greek Revival Masterpiece, New YorkFederal Hall is not what it seems.  In fact, it’s not Federal Hall at all. From the outside a passer-by might easily believe that it was the first capitol of the U.S., and the building where George Washington took the oath as president.  I thought that for years; only recently did I realize: right location, wrong building.

Federal Hall’s spot on Wall Street was the location of New York’s colonial-era City Hall, built around 1700.  When the fledgling United States of America decided New York would be the capital, that building got remodeled by Pierre L’Enfant (later architect of the District of Columbia’s master plan) to make it fancier. Rebranded from City Hall to Federal Hall, it did indeed serve (briefly) as the nation’s first capitol building, before the government moved to Philly and eventually to Washington.

Federal Hall, New York
Model of the actual Federal Hall

Ever more practical than sentimental, New York tore Federal Hall down in 1812. According to the visitor guide, the city sold the scrap to a “grocer on South Street” for $425. The guide skips over what they built next, but eventually the government replaced it with a United States Customs House in 1842.

In some ways that’s okay.  The current building is fantastic, the best example of Greek Revival architecture in New York City.  As Customs House and later a Sub-Treasury, it has its own important history as a key locale in New York’s growth as the commercial and financial capital of the U.S.

Federal Hall National Memorial, Interior, New YorkBut I couldn’t help get the sense that the National Park Service would trade today’s building if they could get the “real” Federal Hall back again.

As I’ve racked up historic sites for this project it occurred to me that New York’s relentless development leads to a fairly loose definition of “authentic” history.  Sometimes authentically old buildings migrate from their original locations (like Hamilton Grange or Edgar Allan Poe’s Cottage).  Sometimes historic locations remain, while the buildings themselves change (like Theodore Roosevelt’s Birthplace, Federal Hall, or Trinity Church).  And sometimes “historic” sites feature inauthentic buildings in ersatz locations.

That last one is typically bad, but not always. Think of The Cloisters, which enthralled both me and Jorge Luis Borges.

Forced to choose, I’d prefer old building/new location.  I’d rather see Hamilton’s house somewhere else (within reason) than an exact reproduction built on the site of Hamilton’s house.  Your mileage may vary.

On view at what I will more accurately call “(Not Actually) Federal Hall National Memorial”:

Federal Hall National Memorial, New York
Washington Stood Here
  • The cracked but actual marble slab Washington stood on when taking the oath of office.
  • Vaults where the Customs House kept tons of cash (literally)
  • A model of Washington’s Inaugural Parade
  • Memorabilia from the centennial celebrations of Washington’s Inauguration.
  • Models showing the old City Hall and Federal Hall buildings.
  • A National Park Service overview of historic sites and parks, in the New York region and beyond.
  • An exhibit on the Zenger trial of 1735, an early libel case that set a precedent for freedom of the press.
  • The Bible on which Washington swore the oath of office (borrowed at the last minute from a local Masonic Lodge).

Everyone should visit (Not Actually) Federal Hall National Memorial.  The architecture alone justifies a special trip. Contemplating the vicissitudes of history and what we save versus what we tear down just ices the cake.

Federal Hall, New York

For Reference:

Address 26 Wall Street, Manhattan
Website nps.org
Cost  Free