Federal Hall: Yes, We Are Open

November 7, 2016 by Seri Worden

This post originally appeared on Preservation Leadership Forum.

Getting people in the door at Federal Hall was the biggest problem. The magnificent 1842 Greek Revival temple on Wall Street is a National Historic Landmark, a New York City Landmark, and a National Memorial. However, restoration needs are deep, and few people ever ventured inside this National Park Service site, which is dedicated to New York City's role in the founding of America. Plenty of people passed by, about 15 million every year, but very few walked through the front doors to visit this architectural gem and explore its free museum.

Most visitors—tourists and locals alike—sat on the sweeping steps of Federal Hall, taking a break next to the imposing statue of George Washington. Often they snapped a photo with the first U.S. president—but didn’t engage with the site much beyond that. While enjoying a great view of the Stock Exchange and the hustle and bustle of Wall Street, visitors were often unaware of the site's deep connection to the founding of the United States and fundamental values like the right to free speech. They were also missing out on one of the great publicly accessible interior spaces in Manhattan.

The National Trust, in partnership with the American Express Foundation, sought to change that. Working with local partners at the site—the Harbor Conservancy and the National Parks of New York Harbor—we developed a plan to activate this important historical place, get people in the door, and encourage visitors to engage with the site's architecture and history.

Federal Hall History

The original 18th-century building on the corner of Wall and Broad streets served as colonial New York’s city hall and later as the nation’s first capitol. Here the Stamp Act was debated, freedom of speech was first recognized, George Washington took the oath of office, the Bill of Rights was written and adopted, and the First Federal Congress met. This major role New York City played in the American Revolution and the founding of the United States is often overlooked. While the “first Federal Hall” was demolished in the early 19th century, the existing building continues to symbolize this important legacy.

The current temple-like structure, designed by the great architecture firm Alexander Jackson Davis and Ithiel Town, is based on the Parthenon of ancient Athens and the Pantheon of Republican Rome, reflecting the democratic ideals forged by our founders. Completed in 1842, it served as a U.S. Custom House and, in the 1860s, as a subtreasury. In the 20th and 21st centuries, Federal Hall became a public gathering place during events like the 1929 stock market crash, bond and political rallies, and more recently the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Putting Out a Welcome Mat

Our job was to get people in the door, to get them excited about this magnificent site and its history, and to help address restoration needs. The National Trust was thrilled to partner with the American Express Foundation, which generously provided a $300,000 grant to the National Park Service and the New York Harbor Conservancy to restore and rehabilitate the building’s sweeping iconic steps. That work will begin the end of 2016.

Our visitor engagement efforts at Federal Hall launched in April 2016. Working with the talented design team at the Trust, we activated the building and its iconic steps by applying dramatic orange and white word art that reflects the site’s complex history. We also designed three oversized banners announcing that This Place Matters, identifying it as a public space and museum with opening hours.

In the past, visitors who entered Federal Hall were often confused by the exhibitions and came away unsure of whether George Washington had ever actually been inside this particular building. To resolve that and to enhance the visitor experience, we wrote a fun and interpretive guidebook with a pull-out map. Rooms were marked on the map and identified with signage throughout the building. National Park Service rangers reported that, over the summer, they gave out 1,000 guidebooks every week.

The increase in visitation numbers at Federal Hall has truly been extraordinary. Since the stair installation, signage, and guidebooks were put in place in April, visitation has consistently been up by around 75 percent over last year. The fantastic signage will be coming down this fall, but for good reason—scaffolding will be going up to begin restoration of the steps. When in New York City, be sure to stop by to learn more about Federal Hall.

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