America begins in New York at Federal Hall. In 1789-1790, New York City was the nation’s first seat of government and old Federal Hall was the First Capitol building. Here the First Congress met and drafted the First Freedoms—ten Amendments to the Constitution known today as the Bill of Rights. And here, George Washington was inaugurated as the nation’s First President. But the history of the site where Federal Hall stands begins long before the government of the United States was established here.


To glean this history, we have formed an ongoing partnership with the preeminent scholars of the First Federal Congress Project at George Washington University. Since 1972, this indefatigable team has combed authentic evidence, from revered documents and lively diaries to firsthand newspaper reports and private letters, illuminating the novice legislature’s history and revealing its most prolific first days in New York City.

The establishment of American government unfolds in their project’s monumental 22-volume Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, 1789 – 1791. Their opus is edited by Charlene Bickford, Kenneth Bowling, William diGiacomantonio, and Helen E. Viet, and published by John Hopkins University Press.

We have also enlisted other scholars, historians, and writers with a range of expertise to help our visitors to experience and evoke the fervor and passion, the feats, and frustrations of what happened here.

Our scholarly team, which have convened over the past five years in workshops, have developed the overarching conceptual framework for Federal Hall. They characterize the founding generation as innovators, inventors, and compromisers and, so far, forty-nine stories, including several of the primary narratives highlighted here, are distinguished by them. Their fundamental research and final scholarship has been the grist for the site’s future programming, installations, and stands as Federal Hall’s authoritative thrust for content. An expanded Federal Hall Scholars, Writers and Artists Advisory Committee is in formation.

A New Day at Federal Hall exhibition concept rendering.

Three Historic Buildings

What is the architecture of democracy? Winston Churchill said: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards, our buildings shape us.” He was right. Through all its incarnations, Federal Hall has shaped us, the American people. Federal Hall National Memorial is one of only 31 Congressionally-designated national memorials in the United States, including the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials in Washington D.C. Unlike most other historic sites, history actually happened here.

Federal Hall sits at the crossroads of American history, democracy, and commerce.

Right across from the New York Stock Exchange, the site of Federal Hall has been witness to history and a succession of buildings, each one important in its own right.

The Colonial City Hall

When New York was an English colony, a Royal Governor and an elected council shared legislative powers. Opened in 1704, the New York City Hall was built here on what was already named Wall Street.

The First Federal Hall

After the Revolutionary War, architect and engineer Peter L’Enfant remodeled the City Hall to house the new American government. Renamed Federal Hall, this is where the First Congress convened. George Washington took his Presidential oath of office on the second floor balcony in April, 1789.

Congress left New York in 1790 for Philadelphia and, eventually, moved to Washington D.C. The design of the newly constructed Washington D.C. capitol building evoked classical ideals of democracy. In subsequent decades, many government buildings in the young country were designed in this popular neo-classical style, including the building on Wall Street that we know as Federal Hall today.

The U.S. Custom House

Designed in 1842 by noted architects Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis as the U.S. Custom House, Federal Hall is a particularly fine example of 19th century neo-classical architecture. It was built to validate New York City’s claim as the nation’s premier port. The architects echoed the founders’ aspirations for the new nation and the ancient world. Its facade evokes the Parthenon and the Greek principles of democracy; the Grand Rotunda modeled on the Roman Pantheon inspires republicanism. The façade is a classic Greek temple form with a broad set of steps that lifts the building up to dominate Wall Street. Inside, supported by 12 granite Corinthian columns, the Grand Rotunda soars 60 feet to a center oculus. Captains from merchant ships harbored in the Port of New York would line up here to pay their custom duties, and the furrows etched by their footsteps are still visible in the marble floor. Duties collected in the thriving port paid most of the federal budget at the time. In less than 20 years, the volume of trade in the country’s busiest port required a larger customs house and one was built further south on Bowling Green. This building was converted in 1862 into a subtreasury to hold the nation’s cash and gold reserves. Millions of dollars were secured here in basement vaults, transforming what had been a cradle of democracy into a symbol of New York’s ascendancy as the capital of capital.

Federal Hall Today

On the 150th anniversary of Washington’s inauguration, in 1939, this hallowed space where America began was designated Federal Hall Memorial National Historic Site, and its stewardship was transferred to the National Park Service.

Designed by John Quincy Adams Ward, the George Washington statue was erected in 1883 on a pedestal that elevates it to the exact height of the original balcony where George Washington took the Presidential oath of office. Millions of visitors each year take their photo with this iconic statue.

Preserving this Historic Building

While the Conservancy’s vision for a New Day at Federal Hall will bring exciting programs and exhibitions to Federal Hall, an essential first step has been to meet urgent building preservation and restoration challenges. In partnership with the National Park Service, the Conservancy initially raised funds to restore Federal Hall’s grand staircase and address critical drainage issues that threatened the foundation of the building. This $300,000 project was funded through the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express Philanthropy.

  • American Express also provided $75,000 to restore the one hundred and thirty-five year old George Washington statue.
  • The National Park Service was able to secure federal funds of $250,000 to carry out substantial renovations on the rotunda dome in 2020.
  • The Conservancy and the NPS continue to seek capital funds for additional projects to ensure preservation of the landmark building.