Thursday, February 3, 2011

City Hall (Broadway and Murray Street in City Hall Park)

I took a really interesting tour of our New York City Hall, which is one of the oldest continuously used city halls in the country, today.  Tours are by appointment only and for individuals, they are available only on Thursdays by calling 311 or 212-NEW YORK (outside NYC). 

The building, which is currently undergoing a $106 million renovation, was originally constructed from 1803 to 1812 in the Federal style with strong French influences.  The architect team that won the building design competition, winning a whopping $350, was French emigre Joseph Francois Mangin and native New Yorker John McComb Jr. (who also designed much of the interior).  The building is really quite elegant and a fantastic example of neo-classical design (see right).  It was interesting to me (as a recovering lawyer) that the statue of Lady Justice at the top of the building is not blindfolded (as she typically is to signify equal justice for all without bias under the law).  As it was a blustery cold day, we moved the tour into the building early and heard about how the original design of the building was altered to lower the projected construction costs (which had come in way over budget).  It is pretty amazing to think of it today, but the architects were asked to eliminate all the marble from the design of the building facade and they compromised by eliminating all the marble from the back of the building since nothing was north of City Hall in the early 1800s except woodlands and farmland!

The interior of the building is quite beautiful (at least the limited parts we were able to see).  The west wing is where the mayor holds meetings (and as our group of 9 were standing in the lobby listening to our guide tell us about the statue of George Washington, Mayor Bloomberg and his staff came into the building and passed right by us) and is off limits for the tour, and the City Council Hall is currently off limits due to the renovations.  What I found really breathtaking was the formal keystone-cantilevered (freestanding) staircase and the "secret" cupola with a central skylight that you can't see from the outside of the building; the top of the cupola is flush with the third floor of the building and does not actually rise above the roof like most cupolas.

We did get a chance to go up the staircase, the top of which was where Abraham Lincoln was brought for viewing after his assassination.  Then we entered the Governor's Room, where there was an amazing collection of portrait paintings by John Trumbull and historical furniture pieces, including the original desk that George Washington used when he led the Continental Congress.  The adjacent room, which was once used as a courtroom, also had beautiful portrait paintings, one of which was of Commodore Stephen Decatur (one of the early, successful pirate fighters--where are they now?) by Thomas Sully (this is the painter who painted the famous portrait of Andrew Jackson which you are all probably aware of since it is on the $20 bill).  This last find was particularly exciting for me, as a dear friend of mine is a relation of this painter and I was able to share this discovery with my friend.  Pretty cool, huh?

All in all, I got much more than I expected from this tour, and as I left, I was faced with City politics in action.  There was a large demonstration against Walmart being allowed to enter NYC on the steps of City Hall (see right).  Folks were chanting "FOR EVERY 2, 3 WERE LOST."  I imagine they were talking about job losses when Walmart enters a market.  I very much felt like City Hall was full of history, but it is alive and active as well.  It is an interesting mix of the past and the present, one worth checking out.

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