The history of the island of Manhattan is intertwine with the story of the birth and growth of the United States. Conveniently for visitors, much of Manhattan’s rich history is confined to a small walkable area around Wall Street.
From the center of American capitalism to the site of the first presidential oath of office, lower Manhattan is brimming with history. Visitors often flock to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, located in the harbor and reachable by ferry, but many don’t realize the fundamental importance this tiny area had on the very origin of the country.
Battery Park runs along the southern edge of Manhattan, affording views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and the former Coast Guard operated Governor’s Island, now turned over to the city and open to visitors on summer weekends. The once neglected Battery Park has received a good deal of attention in the last few years with a rebuilt promenade and new plantings. The park’s centerpiece is newly renovated Castle Clinton, once the site of armaments protecting the harbor. Nearby is the new ferry building for the Staten Island ferry, which provides a scenic free ride across the harbor.
Just north of Battery Park, at the foot of Broadway, is Bowling Green. The Alexander Hamilton US Custom House sits at one end of this small plaza, currently housing the New York branch of the National Museum of the American Indian. Back then in the center of a thriving New York colony, Bowling Green played its part in the American Revolution. In 1770, the British government erected an egregious 4,000-pound gilded lead statue of King George III in the plaza. New Yorkers grumbled about it and finally got their revenge when on July 9, 1776, a pro-independence mob tore it down. At the far end, the famous Charging Bull sculpture signals the entrance to the Financial District. It had been installed in 1989 in front of the New York Stock Exchange, but the artist did not have the city’s permission and it was removed. An outcry led to its installation in a permanent home at Bowling Green. The now iconic bull is now a genuine tourist attraction itself. Little do they know bankers have been known to rub the bull’s balls for luck.
East of Broadway is Fraunces Tavern, possibly the most famous tavern in the country. In colonial times, taverns were much more than bars – they were central meeting points for people and they played a key role in the American Revolution. Built in 1762 and originally called the Queen’s Head, the tavern hosted meetings of the first New York Chamber of Commerce and the Sons of Liberty. It was also the site of George Washington’s famous farewell message to the troops in 1783. In January 1975, the Puerto Rican nationalist group FALN added to the building’s history by setting off a bomb that killed four people. The Fraunces still operates to this day as a bar and restaurant, though it is unclear how much of the original building’s interior remains true to history. The Fraunces Tavern museum, spread over several buildings including the original Tavern building, houses exhibits dating from the Colonial Period.
A short walk north on Broad Street brings you to Wall Street, home to the iconic New York Stock Exchange and Federal Hall. The street itself is heavily guarded these days yet has managed to be revitalized with residential buildings and new upscale shops including Hermes and a gorgeous branch of Tiffany’s located in a former bank building at 37 Wall Street.
Across from the Stock Exchange building, Federal Hall is the site where George Washington took the oath of office as the first President of the United States, though the original building is no longer standing. It was also the home of the first U.S. Congress, Supreme Court and Executive Branch offices. The current structure is a beautiful example of Greek revivalism, opened in 1842 as a Customs House that was part of the US Sub-Treasury. Freshly renovated, the building now serves as a museum with exhibits on New York’s role in the early days of the Thirteen Colonies. Free tours are available several times a day.
At the foot of Wall Street is the Episcopalian Trinity Church, actually the third incarnation of the church, built in 1846. Its graveyard is the final resting place of many historical figures including Alexander Hamilton. You can take a tour of the church every day at 2pm (additional tour follows the 11:15am mass). Tours and admission are free. While the film National Treasure seemed to indicate there was a huge underground vault full of gold under the Trinity Church, no evidence has yet emerged that this is in fact true.
But gold there is, if you know where to look. The most important of the twelve U.S. Federal Reserve banks is located at 33 Liberty Street. The building’s distinctive fort-like architecture was designed by the firm of York and Sawyer, who used the palaces of Florence, Italy for their inspiration. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York has a vault that lies 86 feet below sea level and is said to have more gold than any other bank in the world, including Fort Knox. The bank holds approximately 7,000 metric tons of gold bullion (valued at roughly $200 billion as of August 2008) on behalf of nations around the world and does not even charge for the privilege! Free tours, held several times a day from Monday to Friday, gets you into the vault where you can just about touch the gold. In the lobby, there is an free exhibit of coins from throughout history as well as some fun interactive exhibits on counterfeiting and money policy.
Back on Broadway, to the north, is the iconic Woolworth Building, which is unfortunately closed to visitors. Across from it is City Hall Park and New York’s City Hall, now cut off from visitors due to security concerns. At the northern edge of the park is the Tweed Courthouse, which now houses offices and a school. The stunning Municipal Building sits across from City Hall, most well known now for its many marriages. Nearby is also the entrance to the pedestrian walkway taking you over the Brooklyn Bridge.
A few blocks north is Foley Square with its imposing United States Courthouse, as well as several other courthouses. Nearby at the corner of Duane and Elk Streets is the newest historical marker, the African Burial Ground, which was uncovered during a construction project. Dedicated in 2007, this memorial pays tribute to the many Africans, free and enslaved, who died in anonymity.
Heading back down Broadway, past City Hall Park, you will find a small stone church, St. Paul’s Chapel. Built in 1766, St. Paul’s is the oldest continuously used building in Manhattan and also where George Washington worshipped when the city was the nation’s capital. Now it is inextricably tied to the 9/11 attacks as it sits just a block from the World Trade Center site. From here, an eight-month volunteer effort was mounted after 9/11. The chapel houses Unwavering Spirit, an interactive exhibit honoring that effort. The much traversed graveyard behind includes graves of historically significant figures including officers who served on George Washington’s staff and a lawyer who forged the “George Washington Battle Sword” now housed in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.
The tour of lower Manhattan history rightfully ends at what was once the symbol of downtown’s power, not to mention the source of much controversy in the 1970s. The World Trade Center was long considered a boondoggle since it was built by government agencies not covered by the city’s building codes and was a financial disaster for years. Eventually, the city adopted the buildings and they came to symbolize all that was great and powerful about America. The destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 was a shock to the psyche of the nation and Ground Zero, as it has been referred to in recent years, has attracted tens of thousands of people every day.
With the long-awaited opening of the National September 11 Museum, there is finally a memorial open to the public. The museum and its surrounding plaza provide a powerful place to contemplate the terrible events of that day. More info online.
Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
Reserve ticket with monument pass to pedestal of Statue of Liberty (you can no longer go up to the top) is $18 for adults, $16 for seniors, $11 for kids with audio tours or $12/10/5 without audio. Ferries leave from Battery Park in New York and Liberty State Park in Jersey City, NJ. Plan to spend five to six hours to visit both islands or about three hours for just one.
Trinity Church, Broadway at Wall Street
Hours: 7am – 6pm weekdays, 8am – 4pm Saturdays, 7am – 4pm Sundays.
7am to 4pm on weekdays, weather permitting. During the summer, the churchyard remains open until 5pm. 8am – 3pm Saturdays and Holidays, 7am – 3pm Sundays
26 Wall Street
Hours: Mon – Fri 9am – 5pm, closed holidays
Federal Reserve Bank
33 Liberty Street, (212) 720-6130
60-minute tours are given Monday through Friday, except bank holidays, at 9:30am, 10:30am, 11:30 am, 1:30 pm, 2:30 pm and 3:30pm. To accommodate for security screening, arrive 20 minutes before your tour. The tour is free, but space is limited to 30 people and online reservations are required in advance. Tours book up about a month in advance in peak periods so plan accordingly. Photo ID required to enter the building. No appointment necessary to visit the coin exhibit.
Fraunces Tavern, 54 Pearl Street (Corner of Broad St)
Bar and Restaurant: Website
Reservations (encouraged, especially at lunch) via phone, 212-968-1776
Fraunces Tavern Museum: Website
Open Mon – Sat 12pm to 5pm, Adults $4, Seniors and Kids under 18 $3.
Governor’s Island has acres of parkland and bicycling paths, as well as former forts built to protect the harbor from the English. The island is open to visitors Friday to Sunday in the summer only (May 31 to October 12 in 2008). http://www.govisland.com
Ferries depart from the Battery Maritime Building next to the Staten Island Ferry Building
Ferry hours: depart on the hour from Manhattan (Friday 10 – 3pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am – 5pm) and from Governor’s Island on the half-hour (Friday 10:30am – 5pm, Saturday and Sunday 10:30am – 7pm) Ferry and Admission are free, free bicycle rentals on Fridays.
African Burial Ground, (Website), corner of Duane and Elk Streets, open Monday to Friday from 9am to 4pm. Free admission.
St. Paul‘s Chapel
209 Broadway at Fulton Street
Hours: 10am – 6pm Weekdays, 8am – 3pm Saturdays, 7am – 3pm Sundays.
St. Paul‘s Churchyard
10am to 4pm Monday through Saturday, weather permitting. When daylight saving time is in effect, the churchyard remains open until 5:30 pm. 7am-3:30pm on Sundays.
National September 11 Museum
Hours: Daily 9am – 8pm
Admission: $24, $18 seniors, veterans, college students, $15 ages 7 – 17, under 7 free; Free to all on Tuesdays 5pm – 8pm with advance reservations
Eat & Drink
Stone Street off Hanover Square is said to have been the first paved street in the city. Today it offers many dining options with outdoor seating in season. Highly recommended is Adrienne’s Pizza and pastries at Financier. Harry’s Café and Steak, located under the historic India House, both serve solid menus of American food. Ulysses offers decent tavern food and tons of beers in a faux pub setting. If you are looking for Japanese, Ramen Co. (100 Maiden Lane, enter on Pearl Street) is home to the ramen burger and bowls of delicious noodle dishes.
History has not been kind to some of lower Manhattan’s historic establishments. Delmonico’s on the corner of William and Beaver is the latest incarnation of the famed restaurant. It’s known for dependable steaks but it won’t blow you away. Fraunces Tavern may be historically significant, but these days it is just serviceable bar with food unlikely to impress anyone.
Sadly, lower Manhattan is also plagued by every fast food chain known to man. Luckily, there are good alternatives if you know where to look. Zaitzeff (72 Nassau Street, corner of John Street) has good grass-fed beef burgers as well as veggie burgers and turkey burgers. Alfanoose (64 Fulton Street) has some of the best Middle Eastern food in the city, all made fresh daily on premises. The falafel and hummus platters are both excellent. If you are a coffee fan, skip Starbucks and hit the Mud Truck parked on Wall Street just west of Pearl Street. Yorganic at 3 Hanover Square serves organic frozen yogurt with organic toppings, organic juices, smoothies and snacks. For upscale cocktails visit the acclaimed Dead Rabbit (30 Water Steet, website).
Many subway lines go downtown, including the 1 to South Ferry, the 2 and 3, 4, 5 to Wall Street. To access Ground Zero, take the A, C to Chambers Street or the E to World Trade. The R station at Cortlandt is closed but expected to reopen in about a year. The PATH train operates to New Jersey.
Be aware that due to ongoing construction all over downtown, streets may be closed and trains are often re-routed late night and on weekends. Check www.mta.info for “weekend service advisories.” And please don’t drive in the area. Streets are narrow and sometimes closed for repair, making what is already a maze that much harder to deal with.