Federal Hall National Memorial
Architects: Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis
Location: 26 Wall Street
"From both an architectural and historical point of view," Nathan Silver writes, “Federal Hall might have been the greatest national landmark had it survived.” Silver’s referring to the Federal Hall that came before this Federal Hall, the building that for about a century was the City Hall before our City Hall, and then for a brief time was the US Capitol before the US Capitol, back when New York was the temporary capital of the country — the Washington, DC before Washington, DC. The Bill of Rights was passed here. George Washington was inaugurated as our first President on its balcony. And, in 1812, it was torn down and sold as scrap.
This building, first a custom house, replaces it a tardy thirty years later. Before the income tax, the Federal government got most of its money from custom duties — basically taxes on imports — and custom houses were where such transactions were processed. Sitting in the country’s biggest port, this custom house had an international audience, and thus had to speak loudly to that audience. Its exterior echoes the Parthenon; the interior, with its magnificent rotunda, the Pantheon. Even more, much more than the porticoed row houses popping up all over the city, these borrowings are not merely concessions to a fashion for classical looks. With more than a little presumptuousness, they say to the world that the Americans are the inheritors of the Greeks and the Romans.
The exterior was designed bt Alexander Jackson Davis and Ithiel Town. They dropped Greek temples just like this one all over the country. Together and separately, they are responsible for three state capitol buildings (Connecticut, Indiana, North Carolina, and partly Ohio; only the latter two remain). Later, Davis specializes in country villas and in the process kinda invents the suburban ideal, or at least one of them.
After the custom offices were moved down to 55 Wall Street, the hall was for a time as sub-treasury where some of the government’s gold and silver was kept. Today it’s a museum that details its past uses: a memorial to itself.