Presidential Places

Christina Parrella

(Updated 02/04/2016)
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As a strategic center of the American independence movement, the site of the nation's first capital and the setting for the first presidential inauguration, New York City has seen its fair share of historic happenings over the last few centuries. Many of the United States' commanders in chief have fought, settled and, on notable occasions, dined here. Their actions have proved pivotal in cementing NYC's place in political history.

 

In honor of November's upcoming presidential election, which has already fostered worldwide interest in America's political sphere—not to mention Hamilton, the hip-hop musical based on the life of the founding fathersee this slideshow of places throughout the City that were made famous by America's executive branch, and then visit them yourself.

Photo: Will Steacy

Federal Hall National Memorial
26 Wall St., 212-825-6990, Financial District, Manhattan
One of the most venerable spots in Manhattan, Federal Hall was, literally, the foundation upon which the nation and its three branches of government were built. It served as the original US Capitol Building, held the first session of Congress in 1789, housed early federal district courts and is where George Washington took his oath of office. (Visitors can view the Bible Washington used during his inauguration and the spot where he stood during his swearing-in.) It was here, too, that the Bill of Rights was passed. Although not the original structure, the current building—built as the US Customs House in 1842—is now a national museum and a memorial housing noteworthy displays and seasonal exhibitions. A bronze statue of Washington, erected in 1883, greets guests as they ascend the steps. Admission is free. 

Photo: Will Steacy

City Hall
260 Broadway, 212-788-2656, Financial District, Manhattan
Opened in 1812, the building in use today is actually New York City's second City Hall. (The original was Federal Hall.) The edifice is historic nevertheless—it's the oldest building of its kind in the nation still serving its original municipal function. Throughout its storied past, the building has hosted its fair share of famous politicians. Among the most notable: Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln stopped at City Hall during an inaugural trip, where he met with officials and, in classic Lincoln fashion, addressed a fascinated crowd from the balcony.

 

During visits, presidents and dignitaries often stopped by the Governor's Room, whose walls are now decorated with oil portraits of its famous guests. (Those interested in a free tour should read the information on nyc.gov.) That room served as the backdrop for the viewing of Lincoln's body. After the president's assassination in 1865, Lincoln lay in state on the marble staircase landing under the domed rotunda. More than 500,000 people waited in line to view the open casket. Twenty years later, Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln's Union Army commanding general and a two-term president, also lay in state under a black-draped City Hall rotunda, following a funeral procession down Fifth Avenue.

Photo: Mario Morgado

The Great Hall, Cooper Union
30 Cooper Square, 212-353-4100, East Village, Manhattan
Cooper Union is the site of many famous pre-presidential orations. A slew of our nation's finest all stepped up to the Great Hall's podium before they stepped foot into the White House, including Howard Taft, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Ulysses S. Grant. It all started with Abraham Lincoln's “Right Makes Might” speech, delivered here in 1860, which called for the abolition of slavery. That speech is credited with raising Lincoln's national profile and securing him the Republican presidential nomination. Before another Illinois statesman, Barack Obama, was elected to the presidency, he spoke at Cooper Union in 2008 on reforming the American economic system. President Bill Clinton, however, has the honor of being the only president to speak here during his term in office (the topic: reducing the federal deficit).

General Grant National Memorial (Grant’s Tomb). Courtesy, National Parks Service

Grant's Tomb 
Riverside Park, Riverside Drive and West 122nd Street, 212-666-1640, Harlem, Manhattan
The nation's 18th president, Ulysses S. Grant, and his wife, Julia, are both consecrated in the General Grant National Memorial, better known as Grant's Tomb. It's set in a pretty, contemplative location—inside Riverside Park, overlooking the Hudson River. The marble and granite tomb is a majestic Riverside Park attraction, presumed to be modeled after King Mausolus' burial edifice at the ancient city of Halicarnassus. Visitors to the memorial can admire the mosaic murals depicting scenes from Grant's life (including one of Grant and General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, as well as scenes from the battles of Vicksburg and Chattanooga). The busts of five Civil War Union officers watch over the two tombs, and, outside, colorful mosaic-tiled benches wind and twist around the boundaries of the memorial. 

Photo: Flodigrip’s World (via Flickr)

Chester A. Arthur House
123 Lexington Ave., Murray Hill, Manhattan
From the outside, 123 Lexington Avenue seems like any ordinary Manhattan building—there's a deli on the ground floor and apartments above. But the four-story brownstone was once the residence of Chester A. Arthur, America's 21st president, before, during and after his term in office. Arthur, who was vice president under James Garfield, assumed the presidency after Garfield was assassinated in 1881. Arthur took the oath of office in a private late-night ceremony at his Lexington Avenue home. Surprising everyone, he rose above partisanship during his term, making many nonpartisan appointments and working to unify his own party. Though respected and popular as president, he was not renominated by the Republican Party in 1884. After he left Washington, Arthur retired to New York City, where he mounted a failed run for senator. He died at his home in 1886. Though it can't be toured, the house is a National Historic Landmark, designated by the bronze plaque affixed to its exterior.

Photo: Malcolm Brown

Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace
28 E. 20th St., 212-260-1616, Flatiron District, Manhattan
Given his fondness for hunting, you'd expect Theodore Roosevelt to have been born in the Wild West, but America's 26th president was actually a coffee-loving New Yorker from Manhattan. (The Rough Rider is the only president to date to hail from NYC.) Born and raised at this Flatiron District brownstone just north of Union Square, Roosevelt lived at 28 East 20th Street until his family moved to West 57th when he was a teen. Famously sickly, “Teedie” spent much of his childhood indoors suffering from various ailments, but later went on to lead an extremely active life. Among his various accomplishments, Roosevelt was president of the City's Board of Police Commissioners; he led the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War; and, as president, pushed through progressive initiatives, earned a Nobel Peace Prize and helped establish the Panama Canal. He also once delivered an hour-plus-long campaign speech to a crowd in Milwaukee after having been shot in the chest during an assassination attempt a short time before. Even more impressive: the bullet was still in his body as he spoke (where it remained for the rest of his life). You can see the shirt he was wearing during that speech, as well as other artifacts and various period rooms at the remodeled town house. Rebuilt in 1919, the home contains furnishings from Roosevelt's childhood. Visitors can take a free guided tour.
Note: The site is currently closed for renovations and due to reopen in late summer 2016. Check here for updates.

Fraunces Tavern. Photo: Marley White

Fraunces Tavern Museum  
54 Pearl St., 212-425-1778, Financial District, Manhattan
Before the Revolutionary War, Fraunces Tavern was a hub of early-American ideals. Alliances were made, ideas discussed and patriotic factions formed—likely over copious amounts of beer. Built in 1719 as a private residence, the Pearl Street building was purchased by Samuel Fraunces in 1762 and converted into a tavern. It served up colonial fare to the likes of Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, as well as the Sons of Liberty, who used the venue as a meeting place to rally support for the American Revolution. No surprise, then, to learn that the place was a target for the British, who fired a cannonball through its roof at the start of the conflict.

 

The tavern managed to survive the attack, and, at the end of the war, was the location where Washington bid the troops his famous adieu. Afterward, it went on to house the offices of the Continental Congress, as well as government agencies like the departments of Foreign Affairs, Treasury and War. Today, visitors can see reconstructed period rooms, paintings and exhibitions that explore the tavern's role in American history. (You can also eat where Washington did at The Porterhouse Bar at Fraunces Tavern, where whiskey, beer and American and Irish grub are served in a room that features photos of past patrons.)

Courtesy, The Conference House Museum

The Conference House Museum 
298 Satterlee St., 718-984-6046, Tottenville, Staten Island
On September 11, 1776, British and American representatives met at the Staten Island Peace Conference. Their daunting task? Negotiate a peaceful settlement to end the American Revolutionary War. British Admiral Richard Howe, who had limited authority from King George, and three members of the Second Continental Congress—Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Edward Rutledge—traveled to this two-story stone manor on the southernmost point of Staten Island for what turned out to be a contentious three-hour talk. Howe, backed by the most powerful naval fleet in the world, thought the Crown had the upper hand. But Franklin, Adams and Rutledge refused to compromise on American independence, and the war continued for another seven years. Although the meeting was a failure, the Conference House Museum provides a valuable look into Staten Island's role in US history. The museum is situated on a 265-acre park, which contains three other historic buildings: Biddle House, Ward House and Rutan-Beckett House. You can see the room where the negotiation took place Friday through Sunday, 1 to 4pm, from April to mid-December. 

Photo: Mick Hales

Wave Hill
Independence Avenue and West 249th Street, 718-549-3200, Riverdale, Bronx
Before Wave Hill was a horticultural haven for the public, it was a private 28-acre estate with greenhouses, gardens and a gray stone mansion. Constructed in 1843, the estate was rented by prominent figures, including the family of Theodore Roosevelt, who lived there during the summers of 1870 and 1871. Surrounded by nature, the then-12-year-old Roosevelt, a budding taxidermist who already owned a collection of preserved animals, spent a great deal of time outdoors. It's speculated that summers here may have transformed him: as president, Roosevelt went on to establish five national parks. Today, you can visit Wave Hill weekly from Tuesday through Sunday and walk around the same grounds Roosevelt did.


Just across the street (at 5040 Independence Ave.), a young John F. Kennedy called a spacious three-story, 20-room mansion home from 1927 to 1929. The 35th US president also attended prestigious Riverdale Country School (then known as the Riverdale School for Boys) from fifth through seventh grades, where he excelled in geography but floundered in French.

Photo: Tom Stoelker

Morris-Jumel Mansion
65 Jumel Terrace, 212-923-8008, Washington Heights, Manhattan
While much of the Revolutionary War in NYC occurred in Lower Manhattan, Washington Heights saw its fair share of action too. Morris-Jumel Mansion was headquarters for George Washington during the Battle of Harlem Heights, the Continental Army's first battleground victory in 1776. The estate's hilltop location provided the general key military advantages, since it features views of the Harlem River, the Long Island Sound, New York Harbor, the Hudson River and the Jersey Palisades. Following the war, in 1790, Washington returned to the mansion to dine with members of his cabinet, including two future presidents: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. 

 

In later years, the mansion served as an inn and had numerous owners, including French wine merchant Stephen Jumel and his wife, Eliza. After her husband's death in 1832, Eliza married controversial vice president Aaron Burr—who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel—in the front parlor of the mansion. (She and Burr remained married for four years; curiously, they were formally divorced on the same day in 1836 that Burr died.) Now a museum and purportedly one of the oldest structures in Manhattan, the mansion offers visitors a glimpse into the colonial days. See the rooms where Aaron Burr was married, the founding fathers feasted and George Washington slept. 

Courtesy, Delmonico’s

Historic Eateries 
It takes a lot of energy to defend this land of the free and home of the brave, and over the past three centuries, American presidents have kept themselves going by fueling up all over the City. While running a deeply divided country, Honest Abe indulged in mashed potatoes smothered in cheese and bread crumbs at Delmonico's Restaurant, a Financial District establishment known for its tender cuts of meat and old–New York feel. (Legend has it Lincoln once commented to owner Lorenzo Delmonico, “In Washington, where I live, there are many mansions, but no cooks like yours.”) Meanwhile, in the East Village at McSorley's, one of the City's oldest Irish taverns, Lincoln is reported to have been a fan of the house ale. And much more recently, after delivering a speech at Federal Hall in 2009, President Barack Obama had lunch with Bill Clinton at Greenwich Village Italian eatery Il Mulino. When asked by reporters what they ate during their mid-afternoon meal, Clinton responded: “We had fish, pasta and salad.” That's a far cry—and about 150 years—from a plate full of cheesy potatoes.


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