- Historic Sites
A knowledgeable and passionate guide takes us for a walk down Wall Street, and we find the buildings there eloquent of the whole history of American finance
November 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 7
One of the pleasant burdens of friendship, and of living in a renowned and intimidating great city like New York, is that friends planning to visit will ask me to show them the sights of some quarter of town, most usually in the borough of Manhattan, county of New York.
Perhaps because I once taught economic history, the odds are that I will be asked to walk Wall Street with them. Since I am a bit of an antiquarian and a long-distance walker with a reputation for being lippy (New Yorkese for garrulous), I usually suggest Greenwich Village or, better, a walk of decent length from the Village through SoHo and Little Italy into the City Hall area and across Brooklyn Bridge, ending amid the brownstone elegance and quietude of Brooklyn Heights.
But it is Wall Street every time. “The Street,” as the locals call it, is not hospitable to the amateur, the lounger, the muser, as all walkers know ourselves to be. Nevertheless, though they do not quote that master of the language Willie Sutton, my friends want to go there because, as Willie once explained his affinity for visiting banks after hours, “that’s where the money is.”
I prefer to start at about ten o’clock, when the morning rush hour is past its worst. We meet at Trinity Church because from there all Wall Street is visible. And there, too, is the north graveyard of Trinity, where Wall Street financial history is commingled with every other kind. Just inside the fence is an impressive memorial in brownstone, fashioned to resemble the church itself: the Martyrs’ Monument, dedicated to the soldiers of the Revolutionary Army who died in prison. The anonymous dead of what Walt Whitman called the “sacred army” are remembered in this monument probably designed by Richard Upjohn, who designed the church itself. The graveyard memorial, unlike the church, is topped not by a cross but by a startling gilded eagle. Perhaps some old friend of a martyr or a fellow soldier who survived might have demurred at a religious symbol for the heroes, claiming that an eagle was more fitting a symbol for men who probably had, many of them, been inspired by the infidel Tom Paine.
The north yard also contains the tomb of Albert Gallatin, who became Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury after a career that included emigration from his native Switzerland, teaching French at Harvard, farming and land speculating on the hard western Pennsylvania frontier, a leading role in Congress, and a distinguished sojourn as a diplomat and then as a banker. In his active political life Gallatin replaced James Madison as the leader of Jefferson’s men in the House and was so adept that Abigail Adams described him as “sly,” “artful,” and “insidious.”
Gallatin died in 1849 at his daughter’s home in Astoria, Long Island. He had become the friend of John Jacob Astor, though he balked at being his partner. The Astor touch can be seen at many places in Trinity Yard and the church itself. The cross at the center point of the north yard is dedicated to the Mrs. Astor, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor, the wife of William Backhouse Astor, Jr. John Jacob Astor himself is buried elsewhere, but his great-grandson provided the entrance doors, designed by the family architect, Richard Morris Hunt, and the family always retained its closeness to the church, especially to the vestry, which had so often obliged the Astors’ need for additional real estate in Manhattan by leasing various parcels to them.
Trinity Church, with its spire rising 284 feet, has dominated this part of the Street since it opened in 1846. It is the third church to stand on the site. The first, of brick and wood, was built in 1698 after the charter founding the parish had been granted by William III. This was the rustic part of town; to the north of the church was very much country. The church burned in the great fire of September 1776, a fire the British alleged Nathan Hale had set. By 1790 a new church had been consecrated, with George Washington in attendance, for the capital had not yet moved to Philadelphia. That second church sagged and cracked in the 183Os under some heavy snowfalls and was pulled down.
The Georgian style would not do for the next church, and Richard Upjohn designed it in the Gothic style, which gave the church instant venerability, the look of age and grace preferred by many of the newly wealthy, and distinction from the democratic, if not to say plebeian, implications of the Greek Revival.