The area around City Hall is commonly referred to as Manhattan’s Civic Center. Most of the neighborhood consists of government offices (city, state and federal), as well as an increasing number of upscale residential dwellings being converted from older commercial structures. Architectural landmarks - ecclesiastical, commercial and governmental - envelop City Hall.
New York’s first government home was erected by the Dutch in the 17th century on Pearl Street. The city’s second City Hall, built in 1700, stood on Wall and Nassau streets. That building was renamed Federal Hall after New York became the first official capital of the United States. Plans for building a new City Hall were discussed by the New York City Council as early as 1776, but Revolutionary War concerns and debts delayed construction until 1812.
That is where our walking tour will start, to explore what has happened int he 200 years since...
walkway access across from City Hall Plaza
When the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883 as the world’s longest suspension bridge some 150,000 strollers parted with a penny apiece to take the 30-minute, 6,016-foot walk across the bridge. The walk today is free to all. The Gothic arches rise 271 feet above the East River- the culmination of 13 years and 20 deaths required to build it. Brooklyn homeboy Walt Whitman declared an outing on the elevated walkway to be “the best, most effective medicine my soul has yet partaken.”
FOLLOW DOVER STREET ON THE SOUTH SIDE OF THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE TOWARDS THE EAST RIVER. TURN RIGHT ON PEARL STREET.
South Street Seaport
bounded by South Street, Pearl Street, John Street and Dover Street
This 12-block historic district was a flourishing wharf district in the 1600s and 1700s. Many of the landmark buildings, some that dip their roots into the 18th century, have been refurbished. Schermerhorn Row on Fulton Street from Front to South street features detailed restorations of countinghouses and warehouses. Until it departed to the Bronx in 2005, the Fulton Fish Market had operated here as America’s oldest and most important fish market for 183 years. Also of interest are art galleries, a print shop with antique presses, a 1923 tugboat pilothouse and a lighthouse memorial to the victims of the 1912 Titanic disaster. The “Street of Ships” is a group of restored vessels that amplify the district’s maritime heritage. Pier 17, at the foot of Fulton Street, was developed by the Rouse corporation in 1984 and is one of the best places in the city to view the Brooklyn Bridge.
FOLLOW PEARL STREET SOUTH, AWAY FROM THE BRIDGE. TURN RIGHT ON PINE STREET.
70 Pine Street
Alternatively known as the Cities Service Building, the 60 Wall Tower, the American International Building, and the AIG Building, 70 Pine Street was the last of the grand high-rises planned in downtown during the go-go Roaring Twenties. The 950-foot Art Deco tower has dominated the view of the lower Manhattan skyline from Brooklyn since 1932. Its claustrophobic site between Pine, Pearl and Cedar streets was so constricted that the designers employed double-decker elevators to minimize the number of shafts required. The building’s lobby, full of colored marbles and fanciful stucco work, demands a peek in on tour.
TURN RIGHT ON WILLIAM STREET. TURN LEFT ON LIBERTY STREET.
Federal Reserve Bank
33 Liberty Street
Edward York and Philip Sawyer, America’s foremost bank architects, won a design competition in 1919 to create this block-swallowing vault for the New York Federal Reserve, the largest of the nation’s twelve regional money plants. York and Sawyer delivered a hulking repository in the manner of an Italian Renaissance palace, rendered in rusticated Indiana limestone facade. The bank opened in 1924 and is today considered the largest gold repository in the world, owned mostly by foreign governments. The vault, that is open to tourists, rests on bedrock fifty feet beneath the street.
55 Liberty Street
Architect Henry Ives Cobb created this 33-story Gothic Revival tower in 1910, gussying up its limestone exterior with fanciful birds and alligators and such. One of the first to sign a lease was Theodore Roosevelt who kept an office here after leaving the White House in 1909. After World War I the entire building was leased by the Sinclair Oil Company. In 1922 Harry Sinclair reportedly paid $200,000 to Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall for an oil lease on remote government land in Wyoming’s Teapot Dome region without competitive bidding. The scandal landed Sinclair in prison for six months in 1929 and Fall became the first Presidential cabinet member to do jail time for his actions in the so-called Teapot Dome Scandal. In 1979 the grand skyscraper’s commercial days came to an end and it was converted into apartments.
Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York
65 Liberty Street
Twenty New York merchants gathered in Fraunces Tavern in 1768 to form a mercantile union that in time would become the New York Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber moved into this eye-catching Beaux Arts home from the pen of James B. Baker in 1901. Today’s appearance is actually toned down from a century ago when the fluted Ionic columns framed a series of sculpted figures. Today a branch of the International Commercial Bank of China occupies the space.
TURN LEFT ON BROADWAY.
Trinity and U.S. Realty Buildings
111 and 115 Broadway
Architect Francis H. Kimball crafted this 21-story office tower of limestone and brick to harmonize with neighboring Trinity Church. The resulting Gothic wonderland was erected between 1904 and 1907 with a price tag of $3 million. A small wrought iron bridge connects the roof with the neighboring U.S. Realty Building across Thames Street, also designed by Kimball. It required caissons sunk 80 feet into the marshy subsoil to support the weight of the buildings.
Henry Baldwin Hyde founded The Equitable Life Assurance Society of the United States in 1859 when he was 25 years old. When he died in 1899 Equitable was the world’s largest life insurance company in the world. In 1870 Hyde moved his company into the tallest office building in the United States, a seven-story tower said to be the first in New York to sport a passenger elevator. In 1912 the Equitable Building was nearly leveled by fire and Ernest Graham was retained to rebuild from the ashes. The 38-story tower that looms today was so large - with more rentable office space than any building in the world - that New York was forced to pass zoning restrictions that required skyscrapers to be set-back at their upper levels.
Marine Midland Building
Harry Helmsley was the money man for this 52-story, 677-foot tower with over a million square feet of office space that carries on its business virtually unnoticed in the urban canyon of New York City. The design for the 1967 building of matte-black aluminum and bronze glass came from the shop of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the late 20th century’s leading creator of tall buildings. The Marine Midland Bank bought up most of the lower half of the skyscraper and the naming rights.The balancing red cube in the plaza is the work of Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
It was said that “Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and Theodore Newton Vail invented the telephone business.” Vail hooked up with Bell in 1878 and became General Manager of the fledgling Bell company and in 1885, as the telephone industry shook itself out, he became the first president of American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T). One of Vail’s last acts before retiring in 1919 was to shepherd this 29-story headquarters to completion. Architect William Welles Bosworth, who also executed Vail’s Italian Renaissance palatial home in Morristown, New Jersey, was the architect and he infused his design with classical elements such as the three-story-high Ionic columns of Vermont granite on the outside and 43 larger-than-life Doric columns of marble inside. The western end of the Fulton Street façade is capped by a small stepped pyramid, formerly the plinth for Evelyn Beatrice Longman’s figure in bronze, the Spirit of Communications. The sculpture was spirited away by AT&T when it moved from 195 Broadway in the early 1980s first to midtown and subsequently to a new corporate campus in New Jersey.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Chapel
209 Broadway, between Fulton and Vesey streets
Manhattan north of here was virtually wilderness in 1764 when master craftsman Andrew Gautier began constructing St. Paul’s Chapel with locally quarried brownstone, working from plans drawn by Thomas McBean. St. Paul’s has survived to become the oldest church in Manhattan; George Washington had designated pew in the chapel and George H.W. Bush worshiped here. Until the mid-19th century the spire of St. Paul’s Chapel could be seen across the city.
TURN LEFT ON VESEY STREET.
New York Evening Post Building
20 Vesey Street
The New York Evening Post was founded as a Federalist Party mouthpiece by Alexander Hamilton in 1801 and survives today as the tabloid New York Post, making it America’s 13th oldest newspaper. The Post, known for it sometimes lurid, always creative headlines, spent part of its storied history in this 14-story limestone-faced building designed by Robert D.Kohn between 1906 and 1907 in the rarely used Art Nouveau style typically reserved for Parisian streets. Gutzon Borglum, of Mount Rushmore fame, helped create the structures that stood on the site.
World Trade Center Site
bounded by Liberty, Vesey, Church and West streets
A viewing wall surrounds the former site of the World Trade Center Twin Towers. At the site are see-through grids and history panels with the names of individuals who died when the buildings were destroyed by terrorists on September 11, 2001.
TURN RIGHT ON CHURCH STREET.
St. Peter’s Church
22 Barclay Street, southeast corner of Church Street
This is the Mother Church of Catholic New York, the oldest of 405 Roman Catholic parish in the state. The only time Catholicism was allowed in colonial New York was the 1680s when the governor, Thomas Dongan, was a practicing Catholic. The American Revolution changed all this, and in 1785, after the British evacuation of New York, St. Peter’s Church was founded. Property was acquired on Barclay Street, and the first church constructed on the site of the present church. St. Peter’s Parish opened the first Catholic school in the state of New York in 1800. The cornerstone of the present Greek Revival granite building, fronted by a phalanx of with six full-height Ionic columns, was laid in 1836.
TURN RIGHT ON BARCLAY STREET. CROSS BROADWAY TO PARK ROW.
Park Row Building
15 Park Row
This 391-foot skyscraper spent ten years as the world’s tallest office building between 1899 and 1908. Architect Robert Henderson Robertson’s Beaux Arts tower soared twenty stories above its neighbors on Newspaper Row, the home of the town’s ink-stained wretches since the 1840s, but was not without its detractors; it was derided as “a monstrosity” for its completely blank side walls.
Park Row/Newspaper Row
Newspapers in the 19th century liked to be close to the source of news―city hall. In the second half of the nineteenth century Park Row was familiarly called “Newspaper Row” as it housed nearly all of New York’s newspapers―the Times, Sun, World, Herald, Tribune, Press, and more. The New York Herald left Newspaper Row for what would be called Herald Square in the first defection, and the New York Times departed soon afterwards for what would be called Times Square. Today, no major newspaper exists on Newspaper Row and all but one of the grand Victorian office towers are gone as well.
RETURN TO BROADWAY AND WALK NORTH (RIGHT).
The Woolworth Building is unusual among skyscrapers for having been financed in cash - in this case paid for in nickels and dimes. Frank W. Woolworth commissioned Minnesota architect Cass Gilbert in 1910 to design a Gothic-style skyscraper to soar above City Hall Park which just kept growing, from an estimated 625 feet and $5 million to the final of 792 feet for $13.5 million. The “Cathedral of Commerce” reigned as the world’s tallest building for nearly three decades.
City Hall Park, Broadway and Park Row
At the center of City Hall Park is America’s oldest city hall still on the job. Joseph Francois Mangin and John McComb, Jr.. Mangin won $350 for their design in 1802 which blended elements of the French Renaissance and English Georgian styles. Austerity-minded officials balked at its extravagance so the plan was scaled back and less expensive brownstone ordered to contain costs. Labor disputes and an outbreak of yellow fever further slowed construction. The building was not dedicated until 1811 and officially opened the following year. One thing retained from the original drawings was the landmark cupola which has inspired generations of designers.
TURN LEFT ON CHAMBERS STREET.
105 Chambers Street, northwest corner of Church Street
In the mid-19th century cast iron enjoyed a brief flurry of popularity as a building material; it was easily formed into ornate facades, quick to assemble and inexpensive. Architects Gamaliel King and John Kellum used twin cast-iron facades in 1857 to create this five-story building for William H. Cary’s dry-goods firm of Cary, Howard & Sanger. Cary organized the emporium in the 1830s and the Union Sketchbook of 1861 described his new store as ‘’the product of the taste and ingenuity of three continents . . . 1,500 different kinds of foreign and domestic fancy goods, comprising jewelry, perfumes, watches, cutlery, guns, musical instruments, combs, brushes.’’ When Church Street was widened in the 1920s, a 200-foot-long utilitarian side wall of unadorned brick was exposed.
TURN AROUND AND WALK EAST ON CHAMBERS STREET, BACK TOWARDS BROADWAY.
280 Broadway, northeast corner of Chambers Street
In 1846, Irish-born entrepreneur Alexander Turney (A.T.) Stewart established the country’s first department store on Broadway’s east side between Chambers and Reade Streets. Offering a wide variety of European wares with slender mark-ups, the store’s policy of providing “free entrance” to all behind oversized French plate glass windows made it an instant retail success. By 1850, Stewart’s department store was the largest in the city and his four-story Italianate-designed building, clad in distinct Tuckahoe marble, was known around town as the “Marble Palace.” In 1862 Stewart relocated his business, the most lucrative dry goods enterprise in the world, to a six-story “Iron Palace.” That landmark building has not survived.
Tweed (New York County) Courthouse
52 Chambers Street
John Kellum was a Long Island native who was trained as a carpenter and taught himself architecture well enough to create one of Gotham’s greatest civic buildings in 1861. This was the first government building erected by the City since City Hall and Tammany Hall boss William M. Tweed used the construction project to camouflauge the embezzlement of huge chunks of money. He would eventually be tried here in an unfinished courtroom in 1873, convicted and sent off to prison for 12 years.
Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank Building
51 Chambers Street
This was the largest bank building in the world when it was completed in 1912. The first deposits were taken back in 1850 after Roman Catholic Archbishop John Hughes and the Irish Emigrant Society organized the bank to protect the savings of newly arrived Irish immigrants. Raymond F. Almirall, a New York native who worked out of Brooklyn, drew up plans for the exuberant 17-story Beaux Arts skyscraper; now a city office building.
Surrogate’s Court Building
31 Chambers Street
John Rochester Thomas lived only 53 years through the last half of the 19th century but he is said to have designed more public buildings than any architect in the country, including more than 150 churches. This Beaux Arts confection, planned as a Hall of Records and home to Surrogate’s Court, was his masterwork. Built of Hallowell, Maine granite, it took eight years to build, from 1899 to 1907, and cost more than seven million dollars. Philip Martiny and Henry Kirk Bush-Brown produced the 54 allegorical sculptures on the exterior.
TURN LEFT ON PARK ROW. BEAR RIGHT ON CENTRE STREET.
Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse
40 Centre Street, southeast corner of Pearl Street
In the early nineteenth century, what is now known as Foley Square today was part of an notorious slum district known as Five Points, home to dangerous criminal gangs. Over time the “Den of Thieves” and “Murderers Alley” was replaced with stately civic buildings including City Hall (1811), the Tweed Courthouse (1878), the Surrogates Court and Hall of Records (1911), and the Municipal Building (1914). In 1931 Cass Gilbert, who had designed the Supreme Court building in Washington and three state capitols, was hired to build a new federal courthouse here in 1932. One of Gilbert’s last great works, it was among the first times federal offices were contained in a skyscraper.
New York County Courthouse
60 Centre Street, between Pearl and Worth streets
Boston architect Guy Lowell won a design competition in 1913 for the replacement of Tweed Courthouse with a round building. By the time money could be found for construction in 1919 the curved edges had been squared off to a hexagonal form. The first cases were heard in 1927. The building is most recognized today for the actors from the long-running TV series Law and Order scampering down its wide steps beneath the handsome, Corinthian portico.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO THE HEAD OF CHAMBERS STREET.
Centre Street at Chambers Street
The consolidation of the five boroughs into New York City in 1898 demanded a suitably impressive home for the government of the greatest city in the world. A design contest yielded the legendary architectural firm of Charles Follen McKim, William Rutherford Mead and Stanford White to handle the task. Designed by a partner William Mitchell Kendall, the U-shaped structure was the firm’s first skyscraper which tapped Roman, Italian Renaissance and Classical styles. Completed in 1913, the 25-story block is surmounted by a riot of spires, colonnades, and obelisks and crowned by the heroic figure of Adolph Weinman’s Civic Fame.
CROSS THE STREET INTO CITY HALL PARK AND THE TOUR STARTING POINT.