Our plan for the once and future Federal Hall is still in its early stages, yet already much has been accomplished.
First, we identified our three major areas of focus:
- Restoring the landmark building after years of deterioration
- Bringing it into the 21st century with modern lighting and energy efficient systems
- Creating innovative public programs centered on free expression that showcase Federal Hall’s history as the birthplace of the Bill of Rights
Second, we began — and have already completed — some important pieces of work.
We recently completed a concept plan with museum and media firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates. The plan outlines our free expression programs which will feature speakers, debates, media and art installations, artistic performances as well as interactive opportunities for visitors to share their thoughts on issues that move them. We are now working with specialists in the fields of the humanities, visual arts, film and theater to produce these programs for the public.
Launch of “The Great Debate”
The Great Debate panel discussion series with community members, activists, thought-leaders and elected officials is the first of our free expression programs. Held several times each year, it is themed on issues that affect the quality of our democracy. Panels are curated by us or other organizations, invited to use the grand rotunda as their arena for conversation. Our most recent topics included the politics of gender and race, and democracy in an age of distrust—the latter produced by the New York Council for the Humanities.
Public Awareness Campaign
One of our primary challenges is simply to let people know about this special place. Over 15 million pass by Federal Hall each year, but only a tiny percentage knows about it. Most New Yorkers have never set foot inside. We are spreading the word through digital channels, visitor information material at tourism kiosks and program partnerships with organizations whose mission and audience match our goals. Our latest effort, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, included a new self-guided tour of the building and large scale graphics on the Wall Street façade, which in summer 2016 increased visitation by over 45%.
Restoration of Wall Street Steps
The iconic front steps of Federal Hall have long served as America’s soapbox. From war bond and political rallies to Occupy protests, the symbolism of the site where the Bill of Rights was passed and the majesty of the setting have made these steps the platform of choice for debate, dissent, dialogue — and crowds.
In quieter times, these steps are also a magnet for tourists and for Financial District workers on their lunch break. Such heavy use has taken its toll. George Washington’s perch is listing, granite has fallen away and joints have failed. The steps are urgently in need of repair.
Fortunately, in 2015, we secured the support of American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation to restore the steps and return America’s front door to glory. The work is scheduled to begin in fall 2016 and be complete in time for peak visitor season.
New Rotunda Lighting
Inadequate natural light and outdated fluorescent bulbs had for many years diminished the majesty of the saucer dome. Through a generous donation from Philips, we relit the rotunda with the latest in LED Color Kinetics technology, improving the aesthetics for visitors and contributing to the energy efficiency of the site.
Survey of Historic Interior
Decades of use without major repairs have left its mark on the historic interior. Much of the deterioration, such as loose or cracked pavers and soiled marble, is readily visible on a casual walk-through. But planning the restoration demands more than casual observation. A thorough — and expert — inventory of the damage is necessary.
A grant from the New York Community Trust made that possible. The recently completed pilot restoration and survey of the building’s marble and glass elements by the National Park Service preservation team, assisted by Schnabel Conservation, will allow us to scope out the work that is required, budget for it and raise the funds.
Restoration of Statue of George Washington
Presiding over Wall Street for over 130 years, the iconic John Quincy Ward statue of George Washington has weathered stock market crashes, attacks by anarchists and in recent years, the affectionate attention of visitors. In many places, the black lacquered patina wore away to the bronze beneath and in others, obscured the finest sculptural details.
In 2012, with support from American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation we restored the statue, stripping away years of grime and heavy-handed interventions with state-of-the-art laser technology and allowed the sculptor’s work to shine by coating it with a lighter brown protective patina.
Cataloging and Digitization of Collections
Federal Hall’s collections and those of other Manhattan historic sites were moved to Staten Island when the site closed for repairs after 9/11. With support from the Leon Levy Foundation we were able to improve storage conditions, catalogue documents and artifacts and for the first time digitize and make the collections available online.
New Fire Suppression/HVAC System
Although Federal Hall, a marble and granite monument, was on the cutting edge of fireproof buildings of the late 19th century, modern museum standards require an updated fire suppression system for the housing and display of important documents. With support from the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, we installed a new mist and chiller system which now allows us to display documents from our collection and to acquire items on-loan.