The first city hall in Manhattan was built the mid-17th century by the Dutch. It was located in the City Tavern on Pearl Street and served beer. The city’s second city hall, built at the beginning of 18th century by the British, stood on Wall Street. After the British were gone and New York City became the nation’s first capital, the new city hall building was erected in the same spot in 1788. This time its functions extended beyond the city administration, as it became the seat of the United States government—the first American Federal Hall. Due to the lack of space, however, the Departments of Foreign Affairs, War, and Treasury resided in the nearby Fraunces Tavern, which also served beer. When the US capital was moved to Philadelphia in 1790, Federal Hall once again became the New York City Hall—the third one in the city’s history.
As the dawn of the 19th century saw New York City emerging as America’s most important city, a new and bigger city hall was required. The commission was awarded to Joseph François Mangin and John McComb Jr., the duo who went on to create one of the period’s finest architectural achievements.
The design called for the building to be clad in glistening white marble. Aiming to cut costs, however, the City mandated that only three sides of the building should be covered with the expensive marble while the north side needed only cheap sandstone. The new City Hall was located way north of Wall Street on the Commons. Since the city lay far below City Hall at the time, it was impossible for anyone to imagine that the building’s north side would ever be exposed to the public. It’s therefore pretty ironic, since these days City Hall is considered to be way downtown! Ever since City Hall was renovated in 1954, all four sides have been covered with limestone.
Built in 1811, New York City Hall, one of the oldest continuously operated city halls in the nation, still houses its original governmental functions. With its age comes a lot of history. The city greeted Marquis de Lafayette and Albert Einstein, among others, in the Governor’s Room. Abraham Lincoln visited City Hall as president-elect in 1861. After his assassination in 1865, his coffin was placed in the City Hall so that mourning New Yorkers could pay their last respects.
The soaring rotunda inside the main lobby of City Hall is absolutely spectacular. Encircled by a cantilevered marble staircase, it’s not just an architectural marvel, but also a feat of engineering ingenuity.
New York City Hall, though it can feel like a museum, functions as working government office much in the same way as it has been since the 19th century. As for the beer—nowadays they most likely prefer serving champagne during official receptions.