- 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
The ballots of the electoral college were tallied here by the first Congress to be elected under the Constitution. When Washington was declared elected and made a week-long triumphal ride north from Mount Vernon to appear for his April 30 inauguration, it was on the balcony of the City Hall, for the first time called Federal Hall, that he took the oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution of the United States.
That fall the first twelve amendments were submitted to the Congress in the building on this site; ten of them were adopted on September 25, 1789, and ratified by 1791 as the Bill of Rights. When Madison argued for his amendments, especially for the one guaranteeing free speech, he might have been thinking of Zenger: “A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy, or perhaps to both.”
Maj. Pierre L’Enfant, an engineer and an infantry officer in the Revolution, was the man who redesigned the old City Hall in what came to be called the Federal style. The azure ceiling he worked up for the Senate chamber featured a painted sun, surrounded by thirteen stars. The pilasters of the largest chamber—for the House of Representatives—were of what L’Enfant called “an American order”; they bore eagles with spread wings atop Corinthian capitals. The relief he designed for the pediment over the portico had an eagle, surrounded by a glory, coming out of a cloud, gripping in its claws thirteen arrows and a new seal of the United States. Altogether it was a new design for a new nation in its first national building.
The Custom House—as the new building was at first called—is indeed a testament to the democratic upsurge of the 183Os. Tuckahoe marble from Westchester, just north of the city, Doric columns of great simplicity and strength with an unadorned pediment, a powerful and steep flight of steps, and the glorious, if inconsistent, rotunda, a Roman form—all contrive to make this one of the most notable buildings in the city.
Looking across Nassau Street from Federal Hall, we see a classical eclectic 1912 skyscraper that was home to Bankers Trust for fifty years. From this angle the locality is very much the work of the architectural firm of Trowbridge & Livingston. Trowbridge & Livingston designed Morgan’s elegant and powerful corner house, the annex to the Stock Exchange across Wall Street from us, and the Bankers Trust Building itself. Everyone knew that Morgan controlled Bankers Trust, so Trowbridge & Livingston received two commissions in one.
We turn northward on Nassau, another street cut by the British as their royal colony began to expand. The Doric columns of Federal Hall enclose the east side of the narrow street. In fact, except for Broad, it is unnecessary to describe any street down here as anything but narrow. Pine is the first street to the north, and it is as narrow and gloomy as a defile in a primeval northern forest. It is empty during the middle of the day, save for a few cars and vans tucked almost against the walls of the tall buildings that line the entire street. There are none of the street vendors of steamed hot dogs, fresh orange juice, coffee and croissants, ice cream, nuts and dried fruits that throng every corner of Wall from Broadway eastward and down Broad, with a particular phalanx at the trading-floor entrance of the exchange. But in the early nineteenth century Pine was the center of the fast-food vendors of the day. New York was known then as a city where people would “gobble, gulp, and go,” and oysters and ale taken from street carts was the usual hustling lunch. In the 183Os the clam sellers would sing out: “Here’s your fine clams/As white as snow/On Rockaway these clams do grow.”
Small merchants and vendors had to be inventive when the operations of the bigger fellows led to panics. In 1837 they reverted to barter, and this transaction was overheard: “Tom, do you want oysters for lunch today?”
“Then here’s a ticket, and give me two shaves in return.”
An innocent reversion to a labor theory of value with not a revolutionary implication in sight.
When Aaron Burr returned from exile in 1812, he set up at 9 Nassau, in a cubbyhole of a law office, announced by a tiny tin sign, and financed by a ten-dollar loan from an old friend. In his first twelve days the fifty-five-year-old attorney took in two thousand dollars in fees.
At Number 23 the Sons of Tammany was formed in 1786 by—among others—an ex-Revolutionary soldier, William Mooney, whose home and upholsterer’s and wallpapering shop was here. Tammany’s members were artisans and former foot soldiers—not the material for the Society of the Cincinnati. They became the political legions Burr used to elect Jefferson. Later, flooded by new Irish-immigrant clients, Tammany supported Andrew Jackson in his war to the death with Nicholas Biddle’s “Tory” Bank of the United States.
In the old city Nassau was a street with lawyers, merchants, printers, and newspapers all thrown together in the little three-story houses that dotted the area.