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  • Writer's pictureDante Mazza

Federal Hall National Memorial

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

Federal Hall Front Facade

The corner of Wall and Broad in Lower Manhattan is most famous as the center of the financial world, home to the all-important New York Stock Exchange, which is housed in a magnificent Neo-Classical building with architecture as grand as its reputation.

Despite the tremendous importance of the Exchange, just across Wall Street sits a building that once held even greater power. There, a plainer expression of the Greek Revival Style occupies one of the most important sites in American History: the location of the original United States Capitol Building, then known as Federal Hall.

Today, Federal Hall is a National Memorial and New York City Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places, significant for its architecture and role in the early political history of our Republic. While the building that exists today is not original, the site itself is historically sacred ground where many transformative events in American history have taken place.


Federal Hall as City Hall

A model of Federal Hall as City Hall now on display in the current building.


The first building to be known as Federal Hall was built between 1699 and 1703 as the City Hall of New York City, then as now an important center of commerce and trade. At the time, New York was the second-largest city in the colonies after Philadelphia, so the center of its government was thus sufficiently grand.

The building served as City Hall, courthouse, firehouse, state lottery headquarters, jail, library, and even as the State Capitol Building of New York. The New York State Legislature and the United States in Congress Assembled (the formal name for the federal legislative body under the Articles of Confederation) also met in the building.

As a result of all that bustling official activity, the original Federal Hall played host to some very important moments in American History well before it ever became the National Capitol.


The Zenger Trial and a Free Press

The cover of a reprint of the Zenger Trial's arguments, published at London in 1763. Part of a display on the trial in the current Federal Hall


An early example of such history was the 1735 trial of John Peter Zenger, a poor German immigrant printer recruited by a group of British Governor William Cosby's political opponents to publish a newspaper, The New York Weekly Journal, which ran articles critical of the Cosby Administration.

Zenger's backers were the ones writing the articles, but they remained anonymous, so when Governor Cosby decided he'd had enough with the paper, it was Zenger who was arrested and charged with seditious libel. He was placed in the city jail, at that time located in the attic of City (later Federal) Hall. At the same time, the Governor ordered that four copies of the Weekly Journal be publicly burned in front of City Hall.

After a year of imprisonment, Zenger's trial began. Luckily he was not left high and dry by the opinionated men he had taken the fall for. Instead, his backers, wealthy local lawyers, recruited renowned Philadelphia attorney Andrew (not Alexander) Hamilton to defend Zenger.

Hamilton's argument for Zenger's innocence was a simple but powerful one and has been made famous by history: "the truth is a defense against libel." In other words, Hamilton argued that Zenger should not be convicted of libel because the things he had printed were true. An acquittal, Hamilton said, would confirm that the American colonists had "the liberty both of exposing and opposing arbitrary speaking and writing the truth." Accordingly, the jury acquitted Zenger and that exact precedent was set.

Decades later, in the same building where the Zenger trial was held, the first Congress of the United States would ratify the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, forever enshrining protections for a free press.


The Stamp Act Congress

In 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which required that the vast majority of printed materials used in the colonies, everything from legal documents to playing cards to wallpaper, feature a stamp of approval from the government, which was provided to the colonists after they paid a tax. It was the first time the British government in London had tried U.S.. Parliament justified the move as a means to fund the increasing military costs of protecting their overseas possessions.

The colonists were outraged. The Massachusetts Assembly sent a letter to its counterparts calling for a meeting on "the present circumstances of the colonies."D.C. Nine of the thirteen colonies decided to send delegates to meet.

In October 1765, the delegates met at New York City Hall, where the first Congress under the US Constitution would meet thrU.S. decades later. While very few records of the so-called "Stamp Act Congress" remain, what is known is that the meeting produced a "Declaration of Rights and Grievances," which for the first time made the case against "taxation without representation" and asserted that all colonists in America had the same rights as the Englishmen who lived in Great Britain.

The group also sent petitions to both houses of Parliament objecting to the Stamp Act. Both were rejected, but the Act was eventually repealed due to economic pressure from groups in Britain.

The Stamp Act Congress is today widely seen as the first organized political event of the American Revolution, predating even the First Continental Congress.

Federal Hall was well on its way to becoming the political center of the United States.


The Articles of Confederation

A plaque on the current Federal Hall commemorates the Northwest Ordinance's passage and the Northwest Territory's settlement. It reads:


"On this site the United State in Congress Assembled on the 13th day of July in the Year of Our Lord 1787 and of their sovereignty and Independence the twelfth, enacted an Ordinance for the government of the territory north west of the River Ohio, by which it was dedicated forever to freedom. Under another Ordinance, passed here by the same body on the 27th day of the same month, Manasseh Cutler, acting for "The Ohio Company of Associates" an organization of soldiers of the Revolutionary Army, purchased from the Board of Treasury for settlement a portion of the waste and vacant land of the territory. On April 7th 1788 Rufus Putnam heading a party of forty eight began the first settlement at Marietta and on July 15th Arthur St. Clair as first Governor established civil government in the territory. From these beginnings sprang the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin."


After the American Revolution had been fought and won, the former colonies assembled under the Articles of Confederation. The tradition of a nation governed by Congress, which had begun with the Stamp Act Congress and was followed by the First and Second Continental Congresses, continued with the Congress of the Confederation, formally known as "The United States in Congress Assembled," which met in a variety of locations from 1781 until 1789, when the modern Constitution took effect.

For the last four years of its existence, the Congress of the Confederation met in New York City, including in its City Hall.

It was there in 1787 that the Northwest Ordinance was passed into law.

The Ordinance concerned a large swath of territory extending north from the Ohio River and west to the Mississippi River that was ceded to the United States by the British at the end of the Revolutionary War. It contained all of the modern states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin, as well as a part of Minnesota.

Congress passed the Ordinance to set up a government in the territory and, in doing so, created a model for the admission of future states into the Union.

The Ordinance specified that the territory would be split into three, four, or five different states, provided for the appointment of territorial governors, secretaries, judges, and legislatures, explicitly protected freedom of religion, and outlawed slavery in the entire area.

Once a territory reached 60,000 inhabitants, it was allowed to be admitted to Congress "on an equal footing with the original States in all respects whatever." Before achieving this milestone, the territory was allowed one nonvoting observer to Congress, a right enjoyed today by territories such as Guam and Puerto Rico.

Ohio would be the first state to reach the threshold and joined the Union in 1803. Wisconsin was the last in 1848, followed by Minnesota, which gained the rest of its territory in the Louisiana Purchase ten years later.

The Northwest Ordinance proved so instrumental that when the Congress under the US Constitution assembled in FU.S.eral Hall two years after it was enacted, they passed it again with only slight modifications.

The plaque shown above was placed on Federal Hall in 1907 to commemorate the passage of the Northwest Ordinance on the site.


The First Inauguration

A model of Federal Hall and the Inauguration of President George Washington, now on display in the current building


When enough states ratified the U.S. Constitution for it to take effect, New York City was chosen as the Capital City of the new nation. As the grandest building in town, it seemed only fitting that City Hall should be pressed into service as the national Capitol. After some renovation work from Pierre L'Enfant, who would go on to design Washington, D.C., in 1788, City Hall finally became Federal Hall.

1789 was America's first full year under the Constitution, and as such was the year of many seminal moments in American political history. The nation's first Presidential Election, begun in December 1788, wrapped up in January. George Washington was unanimously elected President, a position that had been created during the Constitutional Convention with him in mind.

Despite the overwhelming victory and sense of inevitability that Washington would be President, many months passed before he could take office. The newly elected members of the first United States Congress had much trouble fighting their way through cold winter weather to New York City. It was not until April 6th that enough members had arrived in Federal Hall to constitute a quorum. The group promptly certified the election results and sent word to Washington at his Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia.

On April 30, 1789, history was made when George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States. Robert Livingston, the highest-ranking judicial officer in the State of New York, administered the Oath of Office. Washington placed his hand on the bible pictured below and swore an oath, written in the Constitution, that every President has repeated since:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will 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."

George Washington's Inauguration Bible subsequently used by Presidents Harding, Eisenhower, Carter, and H.W. Bush. Owned by St. John's Lodge No. 1 and on loan to the National Parks Service, on display in the current building

The exact spot where Washington took the Oath of Office, preserved from the balcony of the original Federal Hall and on display in the current building

Washington then established the tradition of delivering an inaugural address.

In his history-making speech, America's First President expressed his reluctance to take the office, asked God to bless the American people during his tenure, declined to present any policy proposals to the new Congress, and announced that he would not take a salary as President (He was later made to by Constitutional obligation).

Washington concluded by asking once more that God's "divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views, the temperate consultations, and the wise measures on which the success of this Government must depend."

With his address concluded, Washington then processed to St. Paul's Chapel (A National Historic Landmark which still stands today) to attend church services. The United States Government had been born.

The Statue of Washington in front of Federal Hall

honors his Inauguration there


The First Congress

In his Inaugural Address, Washington had not provided Congress with any specific policy proposals to pass, but he had told the body to focus on making full use of the powers it had been granted by Article One of the Constitution. Moving at a lighting pace, the First Congress did just that.

In the short period between the Inauguration and its 1790 move to Philadelphia, the First Congress at Federal Hall:

-Established the Departments of Foreign Affairs (now State), War (now Defense), and Treasury

-Enacted two protective tariffs

-Established the US Customs Service and designated to tax the American colonists directlyU.S.rts of entry

-Passed the Judiciary Act, which established the makeup of the Supreme Court, the US District Courts, and the Office of the Attorney General

-Ordered the first Census

-Established Patents and Copyrights

-Assumed all state debts

-Established what would become the Coast Guard

Most importantly, however, the Congress, with a two-thirds majority in both Houses, submitted to the states for consideration 12 Amendments to the United States Constitution developed by James Madison to satisfy the requests from leaders and citizens alike that the Constitution contain assurances of individual rights and liberties for all Americans.

10 of the 12 Amendments were ratified by the states and became collectively known as the Bill of Rights. The sweeping package prevented Congress from restricting the freedom of speech, the press, or religion, guaranteed the right to bear arms, protected citizens from unreasonable search and seizure, self-incrimination, excessive bail, and cruel and unusual punishments, and, most importantly, reserved all powers not granted to the Federal Government by the Constitution to the States and the people.

In the same building where Peter Zenger had been tried for libel and the Stamp Act Congress had met to protest undue taxation, the new government of a free and independent people had endorsed one of the strongest assertions of individual rights and liberties ever crafted.

Federal Hall's history had come full circle.

In 1790, Congress adopted and President Washington signed the Residence Act, which established a new national capital city at Washington, D.C. The Act was a compromise between Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. A capital city in the Southern US near Jefferson's home state of Virginia was exchanged for the federal government's assumption of each state's Revolutionary War debt, a proposal favored by Hamilton.

Since Washington, DC needed to be built, the Residence Act provided that Philadelphia become capital for an interim period of ten years. Accordingly, Congress decamped to Congress Hall in that city, just next door to Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution had been crafted, debated, and adopted.

With the Federal Government departed, Federal Hall became New York City Hall again until 1812, when a new City Hall (still in use today) was built a short distance away.

Despite its impressive history, the old building at Wall and Broad, which had stood for over 100 years, was demolished. In its place would rise a new one with a history of its own.

A model of the original Federal Hall was constructed in Bryant Park behind the New York Public Library in 1932 to celebrate the bicentennial of George Washington's birth. It was torn down in 1934. This photograph is now part of the display in the current building.


The Current Building:

U.S. Customhouse and Sub-Treasury

The current Federal Hall National Memorial.

Undated National Parks Service photo by Richard Frear

The site at Wall and Broad remained vacant until 1834, when construction began on the present building, which was completed in 1843.

While New York City was no longer the National Capital City, its importance as a center of trade and commerce exploded in the early 19th century.

The first U.S. Census, which the First Congress had ordered from Federal Hall, showed that New York had overtaken Philadelphia as the nation's most populous city. It remains so today, thanks to a steady stream of immigrants and unrivaled economic opportunities.

The First Congress at Federal Hall had also created the U.S. Customs Service and designated New York as a Port of Entry. However, what Congress may not have predicted was what an important Port New York would become.

The 1825 completion of the Erie Canal allowed goods from as far away as the Midwest to be shipped to world markets, and the 1818 launch of the Black Ball Line, which provided the nation's first regularly scheduled shipping service, helped New York achieve commercial dominance.

In the days before income tax, customs duties from the Port of New York made up the bulk of the Federal Government's revenue. It was only fitting, then, that New York's Customs House be a sufficiently grand building.

After just 20 years, however, the Customs House moved to even grander spaces, and the building at the Federal Hall Site became the US Sub-Treasury, a precursor to the modern Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Seventy percent of the Federal Government's money passed through the building while it served in that capacity. During World War I, film stars like Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplain sold war bonds in the building.

When the sub-treasury system was abolished in 1920, Federal Hall was used as an office building by various federal agencies until it was declared a National Monument in 1939.

A vault door left over from the modern Federal Hall's time as U.S. Sub-Treasury


The Architecture: Exterior

Federal Hall, Illuminated in Red, White, and Blue

Architecturally, Federal Hall is a unique combination of both Greek and Roman styles. As the earliest democracy and Republic (respectively) in the Western World, both civilizations were natural inspirations for American leaders who saw themselves as the ideological heirs of the Classical Civilizations. So, naturally, they wanted the public buildings of their government to reflect those ties.

As with many monumental government buildings, the design for what was then the Customs House originated from a competition won by the New York firm of Town & Davis in 1833. Firm partner Ithiel Town traveled to Washington, DC, to discuss the design plans with the Secretary of the Treasury.

The original plan called for a building in the style of Rome's Pantheon, with the monumental front colonnade and pediment that exists today topped with a visible, low central dome. The interior was planned to be cruciform, like a church, with long colonnaded hallways leading to the domed central hall.

The current building much more closely resembles the Parthenon in Athens, though the Roman-style dome remains inside.

Samuel Thompson, a well-regarded New York builder, and architect, was designated Superintendent of Construction by a special Commission in charge of overseeing the project. Unfortunately for Thompson, the Commissioners immediately began making changes to the design plans.

They found the combination of Greek and Roman styles too glaring, and concerns arose about the ability of the building to bear the weight of a large dome. The dome was shrunken and hidden beneath the ceiling, so it was no longer visible from the street. More alterations (discussed below) were then ordered to the interior. The constant changes caused Thompson to resign his post in 1835, taking all his notes and plans with him.

The colonnade of eight deeply fluted Doric-order columns at the portico is the most iconic feature of the building's design. What's especially unique is the fact that they appear on both ends of the building, a rarity in American architecture.

The rear (north) facade of Federal Hall also features columns. It is a rarity in American architecture for both ends of Greek Revival-style buildings to have such ornate columns. Note also the pilasters of the western facade

The wide, steep monumental steps are also highly reminiscent of a Greek temple. The western facade features alternating columns, evenly spaced pilasters, and windows.

The large bronze statue of George Washington was installed in 1883 with a grand ceremony lead by then-President Chester Arthur, who himself had served as Customs Collector of the Port of New York earlier in his career. The addition of the statue is the most significant exterior change to be made to the building since it was first completed.

Today, Federal Hall is regarded as the finest example of Greek Revival architecture in New York City. The City's Landmarks Preservation Commission has declared Federal Hall "one of the few truly imposing temple-form structures in New York of our finest monuments". It was just the 47th structure in the Five Boroughs to be officially declared a Landmark.


The Architecture- Interior

The north (rear) end of the rotunda. Note the columns, pilasters, and ornate door frames

Furthermore, Federal Hall belongs to an elite category of New York City properties that have been landmarked inside and out. Its interior rotunda is one of the city's finest indoor spaces.

The interior of Federal Hall today looks much different from the one that was planned by Town & Davis. The Commissioners designing the building ordered the columns from the cruciform hallways of the building

removed before deciding it would not be cruciform at all.

Instead, the rotunda was moved to the front of the building while the back half became a simple hallway flanked with offices which are now National Parks Service display galleries.

With Thompson having departed the project, sculptor and National Academy of Design co-founder John Frazee took over design supervision. Without Thompson's original plans to refer to, Frazee could make his own alterations.

Most notably, he added a third floor inside without raising the height of the building. Originally intended for storage only, Frazee created an entire additional story of valuable office space.

As Superintendent of Construction, Frazee also led the design of the beautiful interior rotunda, highlights of which are pictured below.

One of the four columnar sections of the rotunda. Note the Corinthian order columns, deep entablature running above them, and the circular nature of the marble floor below, which mimics the dome above

The dome was originally intended to be coffered, as is common in classical architecture. Instead, a series of zigzag panels taper toward the central skylight, contrasting with the geometric order of the rest of the interior. The panels are adorned with an Anthemion (palm leaf) motif, a common ornamental feature of Greek architecture borrowed from Egypt. Note also the ring of stone rosettes circling the skylight.

The gilded iron balcony is among the rotunda interior's most beautiful and intricate features. The lower portion (called the "skirt") is embellished with the same Anthemion motif as the dome. The female figure seen to the right in the above photo is called a caryatid, another common feature of Greek architecture that is decorative but also acts as structural support for the railing above. The remainder of the railing features a floral design

The four corners supporting the dome feature decorative metal grilles set between two fluted Corinthian pilasters and above ornamental framed paneled and gilt doors

Behind the interior decoration, the dome is made of brick, which, combined with the solid stone of the rest of the rotunda, represents the best fireproofing technology of its day.

Before iron allowed for expansive domes like that of the U.S. Capitol Building, domes like the one in Federal Hall were regarded in their day as engineering marvels. Given the technological limitations of the time, it is remarkable that the rather large dome is so well supported in this building.

Perhaps more impressive is the fact that the rotunda feels very light and airy inside despite the use of heavy materials like brick and stone, which were selected for fireproofing and structural support purposes.


A National Memorial

When the Federal Reserve System was created in 1913, US Sub-Treasuries were phased out. Federal Hall became a general Federal Office building, hosting a variety of federal agency offices, until 1939, when civic and patriotic groups recognized the historic value of the building and site.

Under the provisions of the Historic Sites Act of 1935, Congress designated Federal Hall a National Historic Site. In 1955 the designation was changed to Federal Hall National Memorial, the title it holds today.

There is certainly much history to be remembered at Federal Hall. From the Zenger Trial to the Stamp Act Congress, from the First Inauguration to the Bill of Rights, from the Northwest Ordinance to the customs duties that made up most of the federal government's revenue, Federal Hall has seen, and indeed even played host to, some of the most critical moments of the American pageant.

This stunning architectural gem, a blend of Greek and Roman styles that combine to form a temple to the highest democratic ideals of our nation, sits tall and proud upon some of our most sacred historic ground. Federal Hall is, nearly without peer, one of the most important historic places in the United States.


For Further Information:

Federal Hall National Memorial Interior Rotunda New York City Landmark Designation (pdf)

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