Public Design Commission of the City of New York
Art Commission of the City of New York
Art Commission of the City of New York
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City Hall Pre-Visit Guide

The Architects
City Hall Drawing
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In 1802 Joseph François Mangin, a French-speaking émigré, and John McComb, Jr., a New Yorker and son of a builder, won the design competition for a new City Hall. Mangin was probably the principal designer and prepared the competition drawings, but his name was omitted from the cornerstone. McComb supervised the entire construction of the building, including its interior finishes.

The program for the new building specified that all of the functions of the city government were to be housed under one roof.

The Corporation of the City of New-York having it in contemplation to build a new COURT-HOUSE and CITY-HALL, the undersigned a Committee appointed for that purpose hereby offer a premium of 350 dollars for such plan to be presented to either of the subscribers, prior to the first day of April next, as may afterwards be adopted by the board. The scite [sic] on which it is to be erected is insulated, covering an area of three hundred by two hundred feet.-The plan must shew the elevations of the four facades -The interior arrangement of the building must comprise four court rooms, two large and two small, six rooms for jurors, eight for public offices, one for the Common Council, and appropriate rooms for the city-watch, and the house-keeper in the vestibule or wings. Occasional purposes may require other apartments, which may be designated.-A calculation of the expence [sic] requisite for its construction, must accompany the plan.

(Advertisement for the competition. Daily Advertiser and the American Citizen and General Advertiser. February 20, 1802)


City Hall was symbolic of New York's accomplishment and status as a growing and prospering commercial center. While at first the mayor, courts, common council, and police all occupied space in the new building, within a few decades the city and the government had grown too large for this to be possible. Today the Mayor, the Deputy Mayors, and various members of the Office of the Mayor, including the Design Commission, as well as the City Council Speaker and members of the press work in City Hall. Committee meetings, hearings, and press conferences take place in the larger rooms once used for other purposes.

City Hall
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The exterior, reminiscent of a small, French eighteenth-century palace, is delicate, refined and elegant. The center block is emphasized by a grand entrance-up the steps and though the open portico. Above, the central focus is on the five large, arched windows of the second floor (the Governor's Room), and on the third floor, the diminutive attic story (originally the caretaker's apartment and now the offices of the Design Commission) forms a base for the pavilion-like domed tower, known as the cupola, where a clock was installed in 1831. The windows are framed by means of classical half-columns, pilasters, or rusticated piers. Decorative festoons further ornament the windows while balustrades cap the roofline. The Ionic and Corinthian classical orders are used (see Glossary of Terms).

Originally the front and sides of the building were clad in marble, with brownstone used for the base and to save money, for the rear façade, but the stone deteriorated badly; in 1954-56 Alabama limestone and red Missouri granite were used to reface the entire building. City Hall became a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and was designated a landmark by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1966.

Statue of Justice
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On top of the cupola is a statue of Justice by John Dixey, an Irishman, who first carved it in wood. The present statue is a copy in copper from 1887, painted to look like stone and holding a balance with scales instead of the original steelyard balance.

And on our City Hall a Justice stands;
A neater form was never made of board,
Holding majestically in her hands
A pair of steelyards and a wooden sword;
And looking down with complaisant civility-
Emblem of dignity and durability.

(Halleck, Fitz-Greene. Fanny. 1819.)




4 | View Full Image

The statue, cupola, dome, and roof were twice damaged by fire-in 1858 and 1917-and restored and rebuilt. On the first occasion, the successful laying of the Atlantic cable, a celebration with fireworks caused a fire on August 17, 1858.

Undeterred, New York had a second, formal celebration with fireworks set off on City Hall, minus its cupola, on September 1, 1858.

The publication of her Majesty's message to the President of the United States on the morning of August 17, [1858] carrying with it, as it did, the assurance that the telegraphic wires were really capable of transmitting dispatches, caused an outburst of enthusiasm in the Atlantic States….Wherever the news penetrated there was a public jubilee….but in New York the most thorough and systematic display of popular joy took place….[T]he principal feature of the celebration was the illumination of the city at night, together with the display of fireworks provided by the municipality… .

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It unfortunately happened that some sparks fell upon the woodwork of the clock tower of the City Hall, and flames burst out there about midnight, which finally consumed the tower, and largely damaged the building itself. As the central fire-alarm was located on this spot, the intelligence could not be communicated instantly, as usual, to the engine-houses, and the delay which ensued proved fatal to the structure. The scene, however, was magnificent. The statue of Justice, a familiar sight to all New Yorkers, stood wrapt for a length of time in the flames of the grand illumination, and serenely endured the fiery glow for more than an hour, until at length she was observed to totter and fall into the flames. Many valuable paintings, and some relics of General Washington, were injured by the water; but the city and judicial records were, fortunately, not endangered. Fifty thousand dollars are required to repair the injury caused by this disaster.

(Illustrated London News. September, 1858)

City Hall Park
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The second fire was due to burning charcoal left unattended by workmen on the roof at the time of the visit of the British and French delegations to New York during World War I. 

Rotunda, City Hall, New York
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The magnificent rotunda is City Hall's lofty central space, with a double, floating staircase leading to the second floor where ten Corinthian columns rise to support a coffered dome topped with an oculus (see Glossary of Terms). Designated an interior landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1976, the rotunda was thereby protected from alteration and is open to public viewing. Eighteen layers of peeling paint were removed and all ornament cleaned, repaired, and painted as part of the third restoration of the dome, completed in 1996.

Part II Activities:

1. Write a poem about City Hall.

2. Using the Glossary of Terms, identify the architectural elements on the building.

3. Discuss the concept of justice and how it is personified in the statue.


1. John McComb Architectural Drawing Collection, CH001, Front elevation. New York Historical Society.

2. City Hall, New York.

3. John McComb Architectural Drawing Collection, CH051, Design for Statuary. New York Historical Society.

4. Emmet Collection, View of City Hall Sept. 1st 1858; View of Liliendahl's final piece Sept. 1st 1858, 1858, Prints, Emmet Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

5. Anonymous, Manhattan: City Hall Park - [New York City Hall dome destroyed by fire.], Photographic views of New York City, 1870's-1970's, n.d., Photograph. Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History & Genealogy, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

6. Rotunda, City Hall, New York. Photograph by Andrew Moore.