I’am in New York again, it feels like my second home I’m here so often but it’s a place I love to come back to time and again and lets face it there’s always something new to discover. This time I decided to visit the Financial District in downtown Manhattan, it’s an area that I’ve been to before but always felt that I’d never properly uncovered, this time I did.
The Financial District is synonymous with one thing, Wall Street, with its famous stock exchange and banks but there’s a lot more to it than just that as you’ll see.
Early on in the city’s history the Financial District was New York, where City Hall stands today was basically the colonial city’s most northern border and this is why it is one of the few areas of New York where you can still see colonial era streets and architecture. This area was the core of the United States first capital and it was here that George Washington was sworn in as the country’s first president and where the first congress convened.
The Customs House was built by architect Cass Gilbert in the Beaux Arts style and completed in 1907. Its purpose was to house tax collectors for the Port of New York and it’s a very grand building. The four sculpture groupings at the base of the building represent the continents of Asia, North America, Europe and Africa. The sculptures were created by Daniel Chester French, famous for his seated Abraham Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.
There are also twelve statues above the columns which represent the great seafaring nations of ancient and modern times. After World War I the German shield was altered to say “Belgium” as a result of anti German sentiment.
In the 1970’s the Customs Service moved out of the building, it is now occupied by the US Bankruptcy Court and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.
The small park in front of the Customs House is New York’s oldest. Bowling Green was in Dutch colonial days a military parade ground for the nearby Fort Amsterdam, after the English conquest in 1664 it was leased out as a public bowling ground, a popular game at the time. By the 1760’s it had become a natural staging ground for anti British insurgents, after the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in the Common (now City Hall Park) a mob went to Bowling Green and tore down an equestrian statue of King George III. The head ended up on a spike outside a tavern and the rest was melted down to make musket balls for George Washington’s Continental Army to use against British soldiers.
After the revolution townhouses sprung up around Bowling Green and were known as “nobs row”. The green was converted into a private park until 1850 when full public access was restored.
The fence around Bowling Green is an historic landmark and is one of the only remnants of colonial New York outside of a museum. There were originally guilded crowns that sat on top of the railings but these were snapped off by angry colonists on that night in 1776.
Just outside Bowling Green at its northern end is the Charging Bull statue. Now a popular tourist attraction and symbol of Wall Street’s virility but it wasn’t always that way. It was created by Sicilian born artist Arturo Di Modica who devised the statue as the “perfect antidote” to the Wall Street crash of 1987. It was a way to celebrate the “can do spirit of America and especially New York”. A “bull market” is one in which share prices are rising. In the early hours of December 15th 1989 it was left under a Christmas tree on Broad Street. The chairman of the New York Stock Exchange was unimpressed and had the statue removed but after a public outcry the statue was moved to where it sits today. Touching the bull’s “family jewels” are supposed to bring good luck.
On the corner of Pearl and Broad Streets is the Fraunces Tavern. Originally built in 1719 todays building dates from 1907. The taverns owner Samuel Fraunces was pro independence and New York’s leading patriots wined, dined and plotted here, the Sons of Liberty, a group of revolutionary rabble rousers that included John Adams planned the so called New York Tea Party here, and the New York Chamber of Commerce met here for the first time in 1768.
In 1785 the tavern was leased to the Continental Congress, which placed the Department of War on the first floor, the Department of Foreign Affairs on the second floor, and the Treasury on the third floor.
In the 19th century the building became a boarding house and was altered beyond recognition. It was in 1904 that the Sons of Revolution bought the property and restored it to what they thought its colonial appearance would have been, this is what you see today. Inside there’s a bar and restaurant and a museum.
Lovelace Tavern was built in 1670 by the second English governor of New York, Francis Lovelace, next to the old Dutch town hall, or “Stadt Huys”.s of the East River, Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Bridge. In 2005 a much needed facelift created the space you see today.
Coenties Slip was originally an artificial inlet for ships, it’s now a pedestrian only street.
At 55 Water Street is an urban oasis called the Elevated Acre. Perched 40 feet above street level, it features stunning viewThe Lovelace Tavern was English New York’s town hall, it sat at the corner of what is now Pearl Street and Coenties Slip. There is no actual building here but there are the remains of the foundation stones which can be seen through plexiglass in the pavement.
A little further down Water Street is Old Slip and on it is a miniature Renaissance Revival palazzo that’s considered to be New York’s first modern police station. It now houses the New York City Police Museum.
Number 1 Hanover Square is India House, a mid 19th century Italianate bank building, the only survivor of its kind in the Financial District and a prototype for the famous brownstones of the Upper West Side and Brooklyn.
Built for the Hanover Bank, it later served as the New York Cotton Exchange and the offices of shipping giant W.R. Grace & Co. before being purchased in 1921 by the current owner, India House, a private social club. India House was founded as a place where leading industrialists and statesmen could discuss foreign relations and promote trade.
The first street on the left after India House is Stone Street, the first cobblestone street in Manhattan.
The famous Delmonico’s restaurant is a little further up and is where during the 19th century the creme de la creme of New York society dined and danced. Famous patrons of the restaurant include Mark Twain, J.P. Morgan, Oscar Wilde, Theodore Roosevelt, Edith Wharton and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Delmonico’s was the first American eatery to be called by the French name “restaurant” and legendary chef Charles Ranhofer famously invented baked alaska, eggs benedict and lobster newburg here. The two columns flanking the doorway were supposedly salvaged from the ruins of Pompeii.
On Wall Street named after the wooden wall that once stood here is the Federal Hall National Memorial, unfortunately this is not the original Federal Hall where George Washington was sworn in as America’s first president. That building was demolished in 1812 and sold for $425 in scrap. The current building is from 1842 and was built as a customs house, when that moved it went through a series of other uses until it became a national museum in 1955.
The twice life sized statue of George Washington is quite imposing and it’s amazing to think that it was on this site where he walked out onto the balcony, placed his hand on the Bible, and repeated the same oath of office used by presidents elect to this day.
Inside the museum you can see that very Bible that George Washington used at his inauguration, the slab he stood on and various other artefacts from New York’s days as the capital.
Literally opposite the Federal Hall National Memorial is the J.P. Morgan & Co. Building. Built in 1913 when skyscrapers were all the rage John Pierpont Morgan opted for a more austere, four story “fortress” on one of New York’s priciest pieces of land for his financial empires headquarters. “The Corner” as it became known also lacked any identifying markings, the theory being that anybody important enough to bank with Morgan would know what it was. It was built to look strong, and it was, it’s reportedly strong enough to support an additional 30 floors and the exterior walls are said to be seven feet thick. The basement vault has four inch thick walls and a 50 ton door. J.P. Morgan moved its offices in 1989 to a newer building two blocks away.
Around the corner on Broad Street is the world famous New York Stock Exchange. The New York Stock Exchange was formally established in 1817 but securities have been trading on Wall Street since the early 1700’s. The current building was designed by architect George B. Post and built in 1903, it was designed as a headquarters that would project splendour, security and strength.
The Gothic revival Trinity Church is the third church that has been built here, the first burnt down in the Great Fire of 1776 and the second was torn down in 1839 after heavy snowfall revealed structural problems. Trinity parish is the oldest episcopal congregation in New York and was established in 1697 by order of King William III.
Along Broadway there are markers in the ground that commemorate the more than 200 ticker tape parades that have travelled along this route, it’s known as the “Canyon of Heroes” and runs from Battery Park up Broadway to City Hall. The tradition began spontaneously in October 1886, when clerks at the brokerage houses along Broadway started throwing long strands of ticker tape out of the windows during a celebration marking the dedication of the Statue of Liberty. Today the parades are reserved for military veterans and victorious New York sports teams with a few exceptions. Each parade consumes about 35 tons of shredded, recycled paper.
The Federal Reserve at 33 Liberty Street was built in 1924 and houses about 530,000 gold bars, that’s 25 – 30% of the world’s gold. At its peak in 1973, the bank stored 12,000 tons of gold, which weighed more than the Eiffel Tower, today it holds just over half that amount. How does the building bear all that weight? It sits on the bedrock of Manhattan Island, 80 feet below street level.
More than a decade after the attacks of 9/11 the World Trade Centre site is still being built, its centre piece One World Trade Centre soars to a height of 1,776 feet, without the spire it’s exactly as tall as the original twin towers and is officially the tallest free-standing building in the western hemisphere.
Where the twin towers once stood are two bottomless pools encased in black granite and surrounded by the largest manmade waterfalls in North America. The names of those killed in the attacks are inscribed on bronze parapets around the pools and it’s a very moving place to visit.
St Paul’s Chapel was built in 1776 and in it’s 250 year history has survived a revolution, a fire and a terrorist attack. It is the oldest public building in continuous use in Manhattan and the last remaining colonial era church building.
Back on Broadway is the enormous Woolworth Building known as the Cathedral of Commerce. It was built in 1913 as the headquarters of F.W. Woolworth’s discount store empire and was the tallest building in the world until 1929. The ornate building was designed by Cass Gilbert and was intended to permanently advertise Woolworth’s company, even today the building is a real feast for the eyes.
Now in its second century the building has outlasted the Woolworth Company and is currently being redeveloped. It is still one of the 20 tallest buildings in New York.
On the other side of City Hall Park is a block of office buildings called Newspaper Row, a century ago these were home to the likes of the New York Times, the Tribune and the World. The area would have been bustling with reporters racing to catch a story and newsboys on street corners selling the latest editions.
City Hall Park like many old parks in Manhattan hides a grizzly past, during British colonial times an almshouse stood here with inmates put to work cleaning wool, shredding old rope and gardening. Executions were also held here and thousands of pieces of human remains have been unearthed in recent years.
The New York City Hall built in 1811 was upon its completion one of the largest buildings in the city. Today it houses the mayor’s office and city council chambers, it’s reportedly the oldest city hall in the country still used for its original purpose.
Not far from City Hall is the Tweed Courthouse, a monument to William “Boss” Tweed, the crooked political leader who controlled the city in the 1860’s. The Tweed ring used myriad schemes to steal between $50 and $200 million from city coffers. He was eventually arrested and tried in the unfinished courthouse and jailed. The courthouse is now used as the headquarters of the New York City Department of Education.
By the 1880’s City Hall was full so in 1914 the Municipal Building, one of the largest government office buildings in the world was built. It provided nearly 1 million square foot of office space across 25 floors. The building features Greek and Roman design elements, including a screen of Corinthian columns, the so called “Gate of the City”. Topping the central tower stands Adolph Weinman’s 20 foot tall gilded statue Civic Fame. The five pointed crown in her left hand represents the five boroughs.
At the large plaza that opens out stands the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. At 1,595 feet from tower to tower, the bridge was 50% longer than any other suspension bridge in the world. It is still one of the longest today. Walking over the bridge gives you some stunning views of Manhattan and across to the Statue of Liberty.
I hope you enjoyed my tour around New York’s Financial District, I’d highly recommend taking a look around if you’re heading that way soon.