Architectural History

In the 17th century, the civic life of New Amsterdam revolved around the City Tavern, which was built in 1642 at the corner of Coenties Slip and Pearl Street. In 1653, the tavern was converted by Peter Stuyvesant into the first official City Hall (Stadt Huys in Dutch), while continuing to serve beer. The second official City Hall was built on Wall Street by the English in 1699-1700, and was extensively renovated and renamed Federal Hall in anticipation of George Washington's presidential inauguration on April 30, 1789. By the end of the 18th century, New York's government was outgrowing its space on Wall Street. The expansion of the city from a small colonial port to one of the largest cities in the country happened so quickly that it was haphazard at best. Unlike other prominent cities of the period, such as Philadelphia and Boston, New York's municipal buildings lacked cohesiveness and grandeur.

Consequently, in 1802, the City of New York held a competition for a new City Hall. Such competitions were rare at the time, and the contest proved to be popular with more than two dozen applications submitted. The winning plan by architects Joseph François Mangin, a French émigré, and John McComb Jr., a New Yorker, set the stage for the construction of one of the finest architectural achievements of the period.

Mangin and McComb's original design was too ambitious for the City to undertake, so the architects had to compromise on the building's materials. For example, while City Hall was faced on three sides with Stockbridge marble, the north façade (the rear of the building) was faced with brownstone. Additionally, most of the sculptural ornamentation was removed, the octagonal cupola was made square, and the end wings were reduced in size to project only two bays.

City Hall is designed in the Federal style with clear French influences that are exemplified by the five arched windows, delicate ornamental swags, and decorative Corinthian- and Ionic-style columns and pilasters. Inside, 10 Corinthian columns on the second floor support the coffered dome and oculus.

At the time of its completion in 1812, City Hall was one of the three tallest buildings in the city. It offered so much space that, in addition to housing all three wings of the government -- legislative, executive, and judicial -- it included wine and beer cellars, a chapel, small jails, and a housekeeper's apartment. However, as New York grew rapidly throughout the 19th century, many of the rooms and spaces in the building were repurposed, a practice that would continue throughout the building's history. City Hall remains one of the oldest continuously used City Halls in the nation that still houses its original governmental functions.