Fort Wadsworth

Edification value  3/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 60 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The views from Fort Wadsworth are really spectacular.  

There’s no more scenic vista of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

The Verrazano Narrows divides New York Bay into two bodies of water, the Upper Bay (what everyone usually thinks of as “New York Harbor”) and the Lower Bay, which connects to the Atlantic Ocean. As a narrow body of water, the Narrows has always been strategically vital in defending New York from naval attacks. So it’s not surprising that fortifications exist on both the Brooklyn and Staten Island shores of the narrows.  

Its narrowness also makes it a natural place for a bridge, so it’s also not surprising that Robert Moses built one of those there, too.

This project has given me a reason to visit all of the city’s extant historic harbor defense installations. I find them fascinating, particularly how fast-changing military technology rendered them mostly obsolete just a few decades after their completion. Nowadays, of course, we defend our port cities from naval attacks via long range missiles, not cannons and mortars.

Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island Continue reading “Fort Wadsworth”

Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site

Edification value 2/5
Entertainment value  3/5
Should you go?  4/5
Time spent 61 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned In 1912, this 50-page speech, folded in Teddy Roosevelt’s overcoat pocket, helped slow a bullet fired by a would-be assassin on the way to a campaign event in Milwaukee.  Teddy Roosevelt Speech, Theodore Roosevelt BirthplaceBullet lodged in his side, Roosevelt proceeded to give his 90-minute speech, extemporaneously, before seeing a doctor.  He later said of being shot, “It is a trade risk, which every prominent public man ought to accept as a matter of course.”  Brevity may be the soul of wit, but verbosity can block a bullet.

The first thing you should know about the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace is that it’s a fake. Artificial. Teddy Roosevelt was decidedly not born in the master bedroom of that house in 1858, nor did he spend his formative childhood years in that building.

The family moved uptown and sold the original brownstone in that location, TR’s actual birthplace, in 1873. In 1916, in a fit of early twentieth century anti-sentimentality, developers demolished it in in favor of a retail building. Then, after the great man died, sentimentality won out. A group of dedicated Rooseveltians bought the property, reproducing the brownstone in its original location.  The current building opened as a museum in 1923. Continue reading “Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site”

Castle Clinton National Monument

Edification value  2/5
Entertainment value  2/5
Should you go?  2/5
Time spent 23 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Castle Gardens Aquarium, Manhattan

McKim Mead and White’s Castle Garden Aquarium looks spectacular, all heavy romanesque arches and wrought iron barriers to keep the penguins and what-not in.  In my dreams of alternative New Yorks where lost architecture survives, I wonder what that building would be today.

Castle Clinton National Monument, ManhattanNamed for New York mayor DeWitt Clinton, Castle Clinton dates to 1811.  It was an important fortification built on an island just off of Manhattan.  It wasn’t the first defensive installation built to protect Lower Manhattan, and has nothing to do with the older fort that guarded Niew Amsterdam back in the day, which is long gone.

1695 map of Manhattan, Castle Clinton National Monument
1695 Manhattan map, way before Castle Clinton

However, the fort was part of the network of five state of the art harbor defenses built in the youth of the United States.  Although never used in war, merely by existing Castle Clinton and its fellow fortifications around the city helped deter British attacks on New York during the War of 1812.  So that’s good.  They sacked D.C. instead. Continue reading “Castle Clinton National Monument”

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
Cost  Free


African Burial Ground National Monument

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent 39 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned The Visitor Center focuses quite a bit on the efforts at balancing the human desire to learn from the skeletons and artifacts in the burial ground, with the human desire to treat those remains respectfully and not have them end up on dusty museum shelves for eternity.  That’s a hard balance, and it’s valuable to have a glimpse into the  conversations that led to the compromises they made. 

African Burial Ground National MonumentThe African Burial Ground is a small monument overshadowed by the government buildings around Foley Square.  As they were digging for a new federal building in 1991 they discovered bodies, and from there re-discovered a forgotten cemetery used by the city’s African American population in the late 1600s and early 1700s.

African Burial Ground National MonumentToday a corner of what used to be the cemetery is a small green open space with a black granite monument, standing in for a headstone.  There aren’t any markers, of course, and if it weren’t for the signs and a series of low humps of earth, you’d probably just think it was a pocket park.  It’s not the whole extent of the cemetery, as this city is sufficiently about commerce and building that it won’t let the past fully forestall progress, even when that past includes the earthly remains of slaves.

Mosaic of Skeletons, African Burial Ground
Photomosaic of the remains examined and then re-interred at the African Burial Ground

You can visit the national monument in just a few minutes.  However, the as is the norm with the National Park Service, the visitor center’s exhibits are simple, thoughtful, and earnest, and merit spending some time and contemplation.

Comparative mortality ages show almost no African Americans lived to a ripe old age.

It looks at what we know about the people laid to rest at the Burial Ground — nothing in terms of written records, but quite a bit based on archaeological evidence.  It also talks a bit about contemporary black residents of New York about whom we do know something, and paints an unflinching picture of the hardships they faced.


The narrative of the visitor center speaks of “ancestors” (the remains of the people they dug up) and “descendants” (the modern activists who argued for humane treatment of those remains.  It forges a compelling but unproveable link– we don’t know the names of those who were buried there, and there probably isn’t enough DNA in bones that old to connect them with certainty to any living person.  Without a doubt, though, they were New Yorkers, and it seems very right that there is a space in the heart of the civic center of the city to note and remember the role that they played.

African Burial Ground National Monument Museum The African Burial Ground is definitely not entertaining.  But it is important.  Every New Yorker and everyone with an interest in the city and its history should go and pay their respects.

For Reference:

Address 290 Broadway (Visitor Center) and corner of Duane and Elk Streets (National Monument), Manhattan
Cost  Free