The Age of Hamilton

09/13/2020 in
The Age of Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton played a key role in establishing the institutions and policies that have come to define America. A tour of Hamilton’s life and times in New York City begins at the corner of Church and Murray streets.

Alexander Hamilton played a key role in establishing the institutions and policies that have come to define America. He was the chief staff aide to General George Washington, the architect behind the nation’s financial system, America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, founder of the Federalist Party, father of the US Coast Guard, creator of The New York Post and a Lower Manhattan resident for many of his adult years. Today, the district brims with the many sites and locations directly associated with Hamilton’s short, but influential, life.

The story of Alexander Hamilton is one of determination, innovation and genius. A tour of Hamilton’s life and times in New York City begins at the corner of Church and Murray Streets.

This was the original site of King’s College, now known as Columbia University, and the campus Alexander Hamilton called home from 1774 to 1776. It is said that on July 6, 1774, Hamilton made his first public appearance at the school’s Liberty Pole, explaining to a captivated crowd the rights and reasons the patriots had in their case against British rule.

From the corner of Park Place and Broadway, continue east through City Hall Park and along Beekman, Gold and Fulton Streets. At the end of Fulton Street is the newly revitalized Seaport District. The area —bounded by Water, John, Beekman and South Streets — was substantially built between the 17th and 19th centuries. Today, the seaport is undergoing a radical and exciting transformation. While Pier 17 is under construction, visitors can enjoy unique shopping and food experiences at the many shops and restaurants that line the picturesque streets. The buildings on Front Street are especially interesting for New York City history buffs. The handmade construction of the time is still apparent in some of the facades today: the buildings ebb and bow and feature charming and misaligned doorposts, windows and lines. 

Heading back on Fulton, make a left on Pearl Street and continue on until the corner of Wall, roughly following the route of Hamilton’s funeral procession on July 14th, 1804. To the right on Wall Street is the Museum of American Finance located at the original site of Walton House. Hamilton established the Bank of New York at Walton House in 1784 with a capitalization of $500,000, making it the oldest bank in the US. Hamilton played a key role in developing the banks’ constitution and guided its organization through the early formative years. In 1792, the Bank of New York became the first company to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange, located a block west on the corner of Wall and Broad.

Not only does the Museum of American Finance sit on the site of Hamilton’s original bank, but it also boasts a robust collection of Hamilton’s finance-related life. Signed documents, published works, medals and currency designed in his honor are all on display in the Alexander Hamilton Room, dedicated to Hamilton and designed to pay tribute to the original Walton House. In 2007, the Bank of New York merged with the Mellon Financial Corporation. It is now known as BNY Mellon and is still headquartered in Lower Manhattan today. 

Catty-corner to the New York Stock Exchange is the Federal Hall National Monument. The building has played host to a number of nation-changing events, including the inauguration of George Washington as President of the United States in 1789. A year later, in 1790, Alexander Hamilton too played a role in the building’s storied history. Originally New York City’s City Hall, the building was renamed Federal Hall when the city became the capital of the United States. In 1790, Hamilton orchestrated a deal with James Madison which moved Congress and the federal offices south to Philadelphia. His terms of the deal stated that the Virginia delegation would allow Hamilton’s provocative fiscal policy of federal assumption of state debts to pass through Congress. Madison agreed and Federal Hall was returned to city use. The original structure was demolished in 1812—the building located at the site today was built in 1842 serving first as a Customs House and later the US Sub-Treasury.

Many know Alexander Hamilton for his profound influence on America’s financial system, but the Founding Father was also a prominent lawyer. In 1795, he opened his practice in New York and used his skills of persuasion to influence American political policies. Heading south on Broad Street, arrive at Exchange Place. Originally dubbed Garden Street, the address is the site of Hamilton’s law practice. Interestingly enough, a number of Hamilton’s earliest clients were the same British Loyalists he rallied against from the post at King’s College.

If not for his untimely death, Alexander Hamilton would have undoubtedly been a patron of Delmonico’s. Located at the intersection of William and Beaver Streets and just down the road from Hamilton’s law practice, the restaurant is the oldest in America, having opened in 1827 — originally as a pastry shop and small cafe. Beyond fine food, Delmonico’s is known for a number of firsts — it was the first restaurant to have a menu; the first to have tablecloths; the first to allow women to congregate as a group; and the first to serve the Delmonico steak, Eggs Benedict and Lobster Newburg. Dating further back in time, the columns that flank the restaurant’s front door are even reputed to come from the ruins of Pompeii!

Further down on Broad Street at the corner of Pearl is Fraunces Tavern. Fraunces Tavern was the favorite haunt of America’s who’s who at the time. Originally built as a private residence in 1719, the building was sold in 1762 to Samuel Fraunces who promptly became famous for his skill in the kitchen. New Yorkers didn’t just go to the tavern for a good meal — they went also for political discussions. Congress, the foreign affairs office, the treasury and the war department all kept offices there during the nation’s early years. Hamilton was a regular guest at Fraunces Tavern and had dinner there with none other than Aaron Burr on July 4th, 1804—just days before their infamous duel on July 11th in Weehawken, New Jersey. Today, Fraunces Tavern hosts a museum as well as a restaurant and bar. Pop in to survey the historical collection or to grab a bite or beer.  

Heading southwest on Pearl Street and then north on Whitehall, you’ll arrive at 1 Bowling Green, once known as the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. Designed by Cass Gilbert, the Beaux Arts building was built between 1902- 1907 and is flanked by four large sculptures designed by artist Daniel Chester French. The building was originally built to house the U.S. Customs service and the import duty operations from the port of New York. As the nation’s busiest port, New York collected more than two-thirds of all customs revenue, essentially financing the federal government. The ornamental building was named after the man that played an integral role in defining the tariff and customs policy still in use by the United States today. The Customs Office vacated the space in 1973, and after extensive restoration and design work, the building reopened as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

Bowling Green itself is an important part of America’s historical fabric, dating back to 1638 when it was a parade site and a cattle market. In 1770, the British Government erected an equestrian statue of King George III there. Ironically, the statue became a magnet for protests against British rule, as relations with Britain rapidly deteriorated. After the Declaration of Independence was read on July 9, 1776, the local chapter of the Sons of Liberty toppled the statue and sawed off the finials of the cast-iron crowns on the Bowling Green Fence — the saw marks are still visible today. 

On November 25, 1783, Hamilton’s former boss, George Washington, marched down Broadway through Bowling Green and onto The Battery, triumphantly marking the removal of the last British soldier from Manhattan. Now known as Evacuation Day, the celebration did not go off without a hitch. A British Union Jack was nailed on a flag pole and the pole was then greased, making it difficult to climb and thus remove the Union Jack (the British flag was eventually replaced with the Stars and Stripes). Local children recreated this final act of defiance annually until World War I, commemorating Evacuation Day with flagpole climbing contests at The Battery.

Back north on Broadway, Trinity Church is both the final stop of this Lower Manhattan itinerary and the final resting place of Alexander Hamilton. Both he and his accomplished wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, are buried in the leafy church cemetery, along with Robert Fulton, members of the Astor family, the British royal court and a number of publishing magnates. Trinity Church is one of the most iconic and oldest buildings in New York City, founded in 1697 by royal charter. The current neo-Gothic building — the third Trinity Church to be erected at the sight — was built in 1846. It was the tallest structure in New York until the Brooklyn Bridge towers were built 30 years later. The Hamiltons were members of the church; archives show they rented pew no. 92 and that at least four Hamilton children were baptized there. Alexander Hamilton’s funeral was held on Saturday July 14th, 1804, and, today, the public can visit his grave which lies under a soaring pyramidal tombstone in the church courtyard.

The story of Alexander Hamilton might end at Trinity Church, but a visit to Lower Manhattan does not. Located just a few blocks from Trinity Church and the modern high rise buildings of Wall Street and the World Trade Center complex, Stone Street remains a cobblestone testament to New York’s Dutch past. It is also a favorite gathering place for many of Lower Manhattan’s young worker community. Along with drinks, the street offers plenty of places to eat. Grab a seat and settle in for a true New York night just like Alexander Hamilton would. 

If you’d rather take a guided tour of Hamilton’s Lower Manhattan, check out Hamilton’s Lower Manhattan tour given by Wall Street Walks.

Tags: History, must see downtown

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