From Colonial City Hall to National Memorial—Federal Hall’s Journey through History

The present-day Federal Hall building—an imposing Greek Revival structure located at 26 Wall Street—now stands as a national memorial. It was built in the mid-19th century as a customs house on the same spot that was previously occupied by two consecutive structures: the colonial city hall, followed by America’s first capitol building.

The first building on this spot was the British colonial City Hall, which was completed and opened in 1704. It was built to house the Governor’s Council, New York Assembly, Supreme Court, and city jail. The old City Hall was the site of the trial of John Peter Zenger, whose acquittal served as a precedent in the establishment of the freedom of the press. White awaiting trial, Zenger was imprisoned in the city jail and tried in the Supreme Court—all located in the same spot. The Stamp Act Congress gathered there in 1765 to draft a protest against “taxation without representation”—the spark that ignited American Revolution. The Congress of the United States under the Articles of Confederation met in this building following the Revolutionary War.

The original City Hall. NYPL Digital Collections.

In the wake of the American Revolution, the old colonial City Hall proved no longer sufficient. Since New York City had become the nation’s first capital, the city hall was to be transformed into the first capitol of the United States. Famed architect Peter L’Enfant was hired to remodel the building into one fit for a seat of the government. (L’Enfant started as a military engineer but became an architect, later gaining prominence for designing the nation’s future capital—Washington D.C.) New York City’s old city hall was replaced by the new Federal Hall in 1788. A year later—on the balcony of this very building—George Washington was sworn in as the first president of the United States.

The City Hall becomes the Federal Hall. Wikimedia Commons.

When the US capital was moved to Philadelphia in 1790, L’Enfant’s Federal Hall once again became the New York City Hall. It served this capacity until 1812, when the new city hall, which still stands and functions as such, was built on the Commons. The old and dilapidated Federal/City Hall was no longer needed.

The Greek Revival building that currently stands at this location was completed in 1842 and built to serve as the U.S. Custom House for the Port of New York. Two thirds of the nation’s wealth was generated through customs at the time, making a custom house a very important public edifice. Designed by Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis, the building was modeled on the Parthenon in tribute to Greek democracy. With its Doric columns and low triangular pediment, the Greek Revival structure was meant to convey trust and authority as well as symbolize the virtues of a democratic political system. Furthermore, the domed ceiling was designed after the Roman Pantheon to honor Roman republican values. 

From 1862 to 1920—before the Federal Reserve Bank was built—the building served as a U.S. sub-treasury, housing millions of dollars of gold and silver in its basement.

A bronze statue of George Washington (designed by sculptor John Quincy Adams Ward) was unveiled on its front steps in 1883. The statue was placed there to commemorate Washington’s taking the oath of office as the nation’s first president on that very spot. It was dedicated on November 25, 1883, to celebrate the centennial of Evacuation Day—the historic British retreat from New York City marking the end of the American Revolution.

 The unveiling of John Quincy Adams Ward’s statue of George Washington.

From 1917 to 1918, the New York Sub-Treasury building (i.e., today’s Federal Hall) was a site of government fundraising activity for the war effort. To promote the sales of bonds, the government enlisted luminaries such as Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. The former celebrity not only climbed on the latter’s shoulders but also made a speech—quite a feat for a silent movie star!

Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks in front of the United States Sub Treasury building promoting World War I war bonds, 1918

The building was designated as the Federal Hall Memorial National Historic Site in 1939 and finally as a national memorial in 1955. Now a museum, it has been landmarked and will be preserved for generations.

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