City Hall is builtConstruction of the new British colonial New York City Hall begins on the site of today’s Federal Hall. It was completed and opened in 1704. Housing the seat of the Governor’s Council, New York Assembly, Supreme Court and the city jail, it would remain the major seat of government of New York City for over a century.
Image: The original City Hall. NYPL Digital Collections.
Zenger Trial establishes a free pressThe trial of German American printer John Peter Zenger on the charge of seditious libel for printing a series of articles criticizing the royal governor takes place in the courthouse. Delivering an early victory for a free press, codified by the First Amendment over half a century later, Zenger’s lawyer successfully argues to the jury that truth is an absolute defense against libel.
Image: John Peter Zenger trial. Library of Congress.
NYC "Negro Plot" trials are heldEnslaved and free people are tried on charges of conspiracy to commit insurrection, after 10 fires sweep through Manhattan in quick succession. In a wave of public hysteria, likened to the Salem Witch Trials, 200 are arrested and thrown into jails beneath City Hall. Though the evidence is inconclusive, approximately 35 people, including 30 African Americans, are convicted and sentenced to death by hanging or burning at the stake.
Image: Execution resulting from Negro Plot trials. Wikimedia Commons.
Stamp Act Congress protestsDelegates of nine American colonies convene at City Hall to formulate a response to the British Parliament’s new Stamp Act. After 19 days, this “Stamp Act Congress” issues a Declaration of Rights and Grievances to the King and Parliament, calling for equal treatment of the colonies. The Act was repealed in 1766, but it had already precipitated this first organized opposition, providing an intellectual foundation for the revolution to come.
Image: Burning of Stamp Act. Wikimedia Commons.
Confederation Congress meetsThe Confederation Congress, which governed the united colonies after the Revolutionary War, convenes here between 1781 and 1789. During this period, the Congress receives and disseminates the Constitution to the States for ratification and passes the Northwest Ordinance, which provides for governance of the territory northwest of the Ohio River and delivers a key initial blow against the expansion of slavery in the United States.
Image: Plaque commemorating the first permanent U.S. settlement in the Northwest Territory. Wikipedia.
City Hall becomes Federal HallThe New York City Council commissions famed architect Peter L’Enfant to enlarge and remodel city hall to host the first Capitol of the United States. L’Enfant’s completed masterpiece is the new House Chamber with a 46-foot-high coved ceiling, windows 16 feet above the floor and two spectator’s galleries. House debates are open to media coverage and the public, a radical departure from past practices, symbolizing the nature of the House as representative of the people under the new Constitution.
Image: The remodeled City Hall. Wikimedia Commons.
Washington is inaugurated & Congress actsOn April 30, George Washington is inaugurated as the new nation’s first President. Convened at Federal Hall, the first U.S. Congress, one of the most legislatively prolific in history, creates the Departments of State, War, Treasury, and Justice. On two days in September 1789 alone, in a crowning achievement, the Congress passes legislation establishing two cornerstones of American democracy — the federal judiciary and the Bill of Rights.
Image: Washington taking the oath of office. Manhattan Historic Sites Archive.
Congress departsAfter only 18 months, Congress decamps to Philadelphia for a decade and then, in 1800, to a newly constructed capital city on the banks of the Potomac River—Washington D.C. Federal Hall reverts to its New York State and City functions. The relocation of the capital city was the result of a deal that saw Alexander Hamilton, in a bid to preserve the still unsecured Union, bargain away the capital in return for southern support of the federal government assuming the States’ Revolutionary War debt.
Image: Alexander Hamilton. Wikimedia Commons.
Federal Hall is demolishedFederal Hall, now dilapidated, is demolished and sold for $425 in scraps to private citizens in favor of a new city hall north of Wall Street.
Image: The new city hall at today's City Hall Park. Wikimedia Commons.
U.S. Custom House opensThe first purpose-built U.S. Custom House for the Port of New York, the nation’s premier port, opens. Requiring over eight years to construct and costing over $1 million, it was a widely celebrated public edifice. At the time, two thirds of the nation’s wealth was generated through the Port of New York.
Image: Section view of the Custom House. Manhattan Historic Sites Archive.
Sub-Treasury moves inThe Custom House, despite its magnificence, was ill-conceived for its function. After only 20 years, custom functions move to a new and larger building on Wall Street. The site is then converted to a Sub-Treasury. In the late 1800s, the New York Sub-Treasury was estimated to conduct over two thirds of the direct money dealings between the government and the public, with annual transactions totaling close to $3 billion.
Image: Sub-Treasury interior. Manhattan Historic Sites Archive.
Washington statue is unveiledA bronze statue of George Washington by sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward is unveiled on the front steps of the U.S. Sub-Treasury building, marking the exact height Washington stood when taking the oath of office on the balcony of old Federal Hall.
Image: Washington statue's unveiling. Manhattan Historic Sites Archive.
National Park Service takes overThe building is designated Federal Hall Memorial National Historic Site, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Washington’s inauguration, and its stewardship is transferred to the National Park Service. An exhibit for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, featuring over 450 objects from the Messmore Kendall Washington collection is mounted on-site.
Image: Federal Hall with NPS arrowhead. National Park Service.
Building exterior is landmarkedThe exterior façade is designated a New York City landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission which recognizes it as a “...remarkable pure example of classical temple-form.” In 1975, the rotunda, “...an interior space of imposing grandeur,” is landmarked as well.
Images: Federal Hall exterior and interior dome. © National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy.
9/11 emergency workers are shelteredThe site serves as a shelter for emergency workers after 9/11. The building suffered structural damage due to the seismic impact of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers and undergoes a $16.5 million structural rehabilitation in 2005. Cracks in the marble, now stabilized, can still be seen on the interior.
Image: Cleaning the Federal Hall steps post-9/11. Wikimedia Commons.
Federal Hall is named a National TreasureThe National Trust for Historic Preservation names the site a National Treasure and supports a public awareness campaign along with restoration of the Wall Street facade and steps.
Image: Public awareness campaign banners. © National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy.