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New York Cheat Sheet: City Hall / Foley Square

July 7th, 2009 by admin

This entry covers a very small but prestigious bit of real estate – an equilateral triangle from Broadway to Worth St./Foley Square to Park Row.  It is the nerve center of the city, hosting many various civic buildings and courthouses.  It features two buildings that were at one time the tallest in the world.  The glory days of printed media are seen in the remnants of Newspaper Row.  And at the triangle’s center is City Hall Park, its history dating back before Revolutionary times.

Ten Points of Interest

1.  City Hall Park – The 8.8 acre park started as a commons for the Dutch in 1691.  As the city became established further downtown, it became a part of the outskirts, with a debtor’s prison, powder house and barracks being established.  It was in front of these barracks on July 9, 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was first read in New York City to George Washington’s troops.  Prior to that Liberty Polls, 5 in total, were repeatedly raised there to provoke British troops.  A monument to them stands in the park now, along with Statues of Nathan Hale and Horace Greeley.  Hale was America’s first spy, hanged at age 21; you may remember him from his famous line “I regret I have but one life to give for my country.”  A replica statue stands in Langly, Virginia, home of the CIA.  Greeley, editor of the influential New York Tribune, political radical and 1872 Presidential Candidate, is famous for his own phrase: “Go West, Young Man.”

2. City Hall – built in 1811 from the designs of contest winners Joseph F. Mangin and John McComb, Jr., it is a site of both celebration and mourning, being the end point for the Canyon of Heroes parades and a laying-in-state spot for such figures as Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln.  The illuminated clock was installed in 1831, the first in the city.  The interior is equally impressive and contains many paintings by artists such as John Trumbell and Samuel Morse.

3.  Newspaper Row along Park Row had its prime from the 1840′s till just after the turn of the century.  In 1893, there were nineteen daily newspapers in the city of New York.  Today, there are three.  The tallest building in the world stood here in 1890, a 26-story, gold-domed building known as the “World Tower” home of the New York World.  The Victorian-Gothic Tribune Building also stood here until 1975.  The old New York Times Building now exists as part of the local Pace University campus.  Also along the row is the beautiful Potter Building, one of the first fireproof skyscrapers in the city.  Standing in the tiny Printing House Square is Ernst Plassman’s statue of Ben Franklin, editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette and father of American printing.

4. The Park Row Building, No. 15, at 29 stories was the tallest building in the world from 1899 to 1908.  Before being Newspaper Row, Park Row was New York’s theatre district in the late 18th century.  If you take a right at the corner of Park Row and Beekman, you’ll find a now indistinguishable alley that was once the home of the Park Theatre, the first bonafide theatre of New York City.  “Theatre Alley” served as a valet lane for wealthy carriage owners, and its narrow confines forced it to become the first one-way street in New York City.  The street was conceived by John Astor so his wealthy friends wouldn’t have to associate with the lower class.

5.  African Burial Groundlocated at the site of the Federal Office Building (290 Broadway, 1993), this burial site was discovered during preliminary construction excavations.  The area above City Hall Park had long been known as a “Negro Burial Ground,” and its existence dates back to the time of Dutch governance.  In the early 18th century, the land was outside city limits and set aside for the burial of slaves free blacks and the destitute.  It is the nation’s oldest known African-American cemetery, dating to 1712-1713.

6.  Foley Square is named after politician Thomas F. Foley, famous political strategist of the late 19th – early 20th century.  The Square was originally a spring-fed pond called Collect Pond used by the tanning industry in the 1700′s.  In the early 1800′s, the city began to fill the pond and drain the surrounding marsh.  The influx of industry, the sinking land undermined by the spring and the general stench made the area highly undesirable for residence.  What emerged by the 1840′s was one of the worst slums the country has ever known, the “Five Points” (explored in the 2003 film Gangs of New York).  It’s center was the intersection of Baxter Street, Park St. and Worth St.  The area averaged over a murder a day, not helped by police avoidance of the area.  By the turn of the century the slums were razed and nothing remains of its past.

Today Foley Square is the home of many impressive courthouses and civic buildings:

Thurgood Marshal U.S. Courthose: (1933-1936, Cass Gilbert & Gilbert Jr.) – designed as a sister building to the Supreme Court in Washington, it houses the U.S. District Court and Federal Court of Appeals.  Famous trials include the Alger Hiss perjury case, the Rosenberg trial and the acquittal of John Gotti.

Danial Patrick Moynihan Courthouse
: the U.S District Court for the Southern District of New York, perhaps most famous now for hosting the Bernie Madoff trial.

New york State Supreme Court Building:  You may be familiar with it do to its appearance in movies, including 12 Angry Men, and countless episodes of “Law and Order.”

Triumph of the Human Spirit: A 50-foot black granite sculpture honoring Africans brought to America against their will (2000).

Engine Company 31: At 87 Lafayette Street stands a beautiful French Renaissance-style building now home to DCTV, an awesome media learning center and venue of which I am a member.  Check out their camera rental values.  The building is a City and National landmark.

7. The Municipal BuildingLocated at 1 Centre Street, the building was built in 1914 by plans from McKin, Mead and White.  There are many interesting features to this building, starting with the 25-foot tall Civic Fame at the top in gilt gold.  It holds a laurel branch and wears a five-pointed crown, a point for each burrough.  It is the second tallest statue in the city after the Statue of Liberty.

Above the colonnade are written the three names the island has had: New York, New Amsterdam and Manhattan (Algonquian for “Island of Many Hills”).  Also displayed are the shields of Amsterdam, Great Britain, New York City and New York State.  Other features include the winged figures Guidance and Executive Power, the panels Civic Duty and Civic Pride, and the relief medallions Progress and Prudence.  Chambers Street used to run through the building, but the area is now Police Plaza.  Inside you’ll find Bernard Rosenthal’s street sculpture Five in One.

8. The Criminal Courts Building behind City Hall is known more familiarly as Tweed Courthouse.  The structure is a monument to embezzlement.  Quoted at a price of $250,000 in 1858, the building was completed thirteen years later at a cost of $12-$13 million dollars, with an estimated $8.5 million going to Boss Tweed and his friends.

At the time, William M. “Boss” Tweed was the leader of the Democratic organization Tammany Hall.  Though he never held high public office, his many connections allowed for years of awe-inspiring taxpayer theft.  For instance, a man named Andrew J. Garvey appears in log books as having received $45,966.89 for a single day of wall plastering (he was after referred to as the “Prince of the Plasterers).  Also, if one were to fill all the orders for carpet for the city of New York during Tweed’s influence, a runner carpet could be made stretching from the city to Albany (~150 miles).

9.  The Sun Building at the corner of Chambers and Broadway was also the site of the first large department store in New York City, “The Marble Dry-Goods Palace” (1846).  The Sun newspaper published there from 1912 to its conclusion in 1952.  At the corner stands the attractive Sun Clock, with its motto “The Sun it Shines for All.”  On the second floor corner office, Sun editor Francis Pharcellus Church wrote the famous Christmas missive “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

10.  The Woolworth BuildingThe Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway was the world’s tallest building on its completion in 1913 (Cass Gilbert) and remained that way until 1930 when it was surpassed by the Chrysler Building.  It was essentially a career monument to owner F.W. Woolworth, and the five-and-dime magnate was able to pay all $13-$15 million dollars of construction fees in cash.  The Gothic-Revival building stretches 792 feet into the sky and looks especially majestic at night when illuminated.  In 1913, Brooklyn radio evangelist Rev. S. Parkes Cadman, struck with awe, referred to it as “The Cathedral of Commerce.”  The name stuck.

Other interesting points:

Site of the P.T. Barnum American Museum

Site of the City’s first Subway


  1. Hi and thank you for all the good info on Foley Square and City Hall neighborhoods. One correction, though: The old New York Sun occupied what we know today as the Sun Building (#9) from 1919 to its closure in 1950. Before that, the Sun was housed in the nearby American Tract Society building (1915-1919) and before that in the original Tammany Hall headquarters at 170 Nassau Street (now half of the frontage of the big, new, ugly Pace University building). That’s where “Yes Virginia” was written.


    John Batteiger

    John Batteiger
    December 12th, 2009

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