Growing up, I thought of NYC mainly as the location of all my favorite romantic comedies and the magical land of Broadway musicals; I never thought of it as the site of many of the major happenings of the American Revolution. I’m not sure what percentage of visitors to the city are drawn by its historical sites, but that aspect of NYC has completely blown us away as we’ve sought to learn more about it. Downtown Manhattan is especially packed with Revolutionary sites and significant early American history. At the center of this history is Federal Hall.
Towering over Wall Street, right across the street from the stock exchange, the columned building sits where George Washington was inaugurated as the first U.S. President and where the offices of all 3 branches of government began. The original building that stood in this spot served as the nation’s first Capitol and held its first Congress. That building was demolished in 1812 and the current structure finished in 1842.
The building that stands in the spot today served as a Customs House and sub-treasury in turn, holding millions of dollars in gold and silver in its vaults. In 1939 it came under the wing of the National Park Service, and now it serves as a monument to early American history and a museum to teach about George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and New York City’s place in the Revolution.
As with every national park service site we’ve visited, attending a ranger program here really leveled up our experience. We joined a tour of the building and loved hearing from the ranger about Federal Hall’s role as the first government building. Our ranger also talked a lot about how the no other Revolution in recorded history was carried out by as elite a group as America’s founding fathers, and our tour group talked for a long time about how that fact has impacted the establishment and governance of the U.S. The kids were pretty bored and started getting a little nutty during the tour, but David and I loved the discussion 😊.
If you visit Federal Hall, absolutely try to time it so you can attend a ranger tour of the building, then be sure to check out the exhibits on the top floor, the models of the original building on this site, and the basement bathrooms, the cleanest bathrooms in downtown Manhattan that you can access without buying something 😉—thanks NPS! The rangers here are also a trove of information about other historical sites downtown, and can point you toward Castle Clinton, African Burial Grounds, Fraunces Tavern, St. Paul’s Chapel (where Alexander Hamilton, among other notable early Americans) is buried, Theodore Roosevelt’s Birthplace, the Tenement Museum, or any of the other fantastic spots in the area. Just down the street is the excellent 9/11 Memorial and museum and, if you feel like escaping the crowds, you can also visit the nearby Museum of American Finance, which is much more fun than it sounds with its displays of historic currency and a solid gold, jewel-encrusted Monopoly game, worth a cool $2 million. Another terrific museum that is one of our very favorite parts of downtown is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, which usually has incredible Native art on display, along with with its permanent historical collection.
Any way you slice it, downtown Manhattan is a treasure trove of fascinating history and one of our favorite parts of the city. And Federal Hall is a perfect place to kick off your visit.
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