- 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
When the dead and injured were cleared from the street, a search among the ruins turned up only a horseshoe, which was traced to a Lower East Side blacksmith who recalled fastening it a day or two before, but remembered only that his customer was Sicilian. We are left to wonder if the perpetrator, like the terrorist in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, who wanted to bomb the Greenwich Observatory and thus throw a bomb into the heart of pure mathematics, thought he could destroy capitalism.
It is perfectly fitting that from the expanse of sidewalk—almost a plaza—in front of the House of Morgan we get the best view of George B. Post’s grandiloquent Renaissance Stock Exchange.
All that Georgia marble, the huge entablature, and the heroic figures in the sculpture of the pediment—this is a bourse to be proud of. It is enormous, as grand as the hopes and successful speculations of the brokers who planned it in 1900 and were present in 1903, when it opened for business in the middle of an unprecedented bull market. That bull market began in 1897 and came to an end in the crash of 1907, with only an attack of collywobbles in 1901 to interrupt its surge.
William McKinley, a safe man, defeated William Jennings Bryan for the Presidency in 1896 and saved the gold standard; gold was discovered simultaneously in Australia, South Africa, and Alaska; we won a “splendid little war” with Spain; and there was an explosion of self-confidence and contentment in the country. What Lewis Mumford called the “imperial facade” is the appropriate style, and it came ready to hand to tastes fashioned by the White City architecture of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Louis Sullivan called it the “white cloud” that set American architecture back and down, but Post, who had once been a rebel and called himself a “Goth,” knew his customers and gave them the operatic building they wanted.
There are no traffic lights on Wall Street until one gets to Water Street, and the flow of automobiles, moving vans, bicycle messengers, tour buses, and the ubiquitous stretch limousines, sinister with their opaque windows, is torrential. But it is worth braving to get to a glorious Greek Revival building.
On the uptown side of Wall, where Broad opens up and reaches its northern boundary, stands Federal Hall National Memorial. The building on the site is the Custom House built from 1834 to 1842 and designed by Ithiel Town and Alexander Jackson Davis. It became a Subtreasury in 1863, when customs moved to the Merchants Exchange at Number 55, and it was the home of the Federal Reserve Bank from 1920 to 1924.
Why, then, is it named Federal Hall? A little more history is in order. At the time Trinity first went up and the wall was coming down, the town was growing northward and the English decided to build a new City Hall. They built it at the intersection of Nassau, Broad, and Wall. That was in 1703, and the building served as City Hall, jailhouse, and library, among other things. In 1735 it was the site of John Peter Zenger’s trial for seditious libel, a trial in which Andrew Hamilton (no relation to Alexander), nearly eighty years old and the prototype of the clever “Philadelphia lawyer,” was imported for the defense. Hamilton, defying the court and all precedent, made out a case that truth protected the publisher from an action for libel. In the English common law the truth concerning a matter of the crown made a statement even more seditious. The jury of New Yorkers, angry that Chief Justice James De Lancey had disbarred Zenger’s first set of attorneys, rebelled against the judge’s instructions and brought in an acquittal. They had responded to Hamilton’s plea: “It is not the cause of a poor printer, nor of New York alone which you are now trying. No! It is the best cause, it is the cause; it is the cause of liberty, both of exposing and opposing arbitrary power by speaking and writing truth!”
In 1765 the Stamp Act Congress met here to protest the enactment of duties on the internal commerce of the colonies, and the assembled colonists passed a Declaration of Rights and Grievances that set them on the way to the theory of independence. When the act was repealed in 1766, the first Liberty Pole was erected in front of City Hall. The Sons of Liberty formed, and nonimportation from Britain became the watchword of most of the merchants. The long-term effect on the Congress was what Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina wanted: “There ought to be no New England man, no New Yorker, known on the continent, but all of us Americans.”
After independence the Congress of the Confederation met here and in 1787 enacted the Northwest Ordinance, which set the terms for continental expansion westward.