It was "a superb Edifice, an Edifice that would grace any Metropolis in Europe," the New York Morning Post and Daily Advertiser proclaimed.
The original City Hall had just been turned over to Pierre L'Enfant, who transformed it into Federal Hall, home of the first Congress, at the start of New York's two-year stint as the nation's capital.On April 30, 1789, George Washington would step onto the second-floor balcony and take the oath of office, promising to "preserve, protect and defend" the Constitution of a fledgling democracy.
Two centuries later, workers are finishing renovations to the 149-year-old Federal Hall whose original version was torn down in 1812. A squat building with Greek columns, it is dwarfed by the concrete and glass towers of the financial district.
On Sunday, President Bush plans to visit the historic building at 26 Wall Street for the last major event of the Bicentennial, a re-enactment of Washington's inauguration.
The weekend extravaganza is to be capped by a parade, a fireworks show narrated by Walter Cronkite, dedication of a new museum, a 60-ship flotilla in New York Harbor, military bands, a 13-gun salute and a President's Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
"We didn't create these events out of thin air," said Peter Kohlmann, executive director of the city's bicentennial commission, which has raised $2.5 million in private funds. "There were similar events 100 and 200 years ago." When President Benjamin Harrison presided at the ceremonies in 1889, Kohlmann said, "The event was humongous, bigger than Liberty Weekend."
The city in which Washington arrived in 1789 was a community of 28,000 merchants, laborers, gunsmiths, wigmakers, tavern owners and others living near the tip of lower Manhattan. There were 4,200 houses of Dutch and English style; the narrow sidewalks were unpaved. New York was, according to one paper, "surrounded on every side by high and improved land covered with verdure and growing vegetables."
The growing port was chosen as the temporary capital after a bitter debate also involving partisans of Philadelphia, Annapolis and Baltimore.
Federal Hall, now surrounded by banks, the Broad Street subway station and the New York Stock Exchange, has had few visitors in recent years. But it will henceforth be the home of the Museum of American Constitutional Government, which is to include an architectural exhibit, historical film and programs in which schoolchildren re-enact congressional debate and Supreme Court arguments.
"It's not a collection of hallowed documents but an effort to make this stuff very much alive," said Richard Rabinowitz of the American History Workshop. He noted that a future exhibit would focus on New York City's forthcoming rewrite of its charter.
A few blocks away, St. Paul's Chapel, where Washington went to pray after his inauguration, plans a commemorative service Sunday. The 1766 stone church on lower Broadway, which currently houses two homeless men, has carefully preserved Washington's pew.
Bicentennial organizers have gone to considerable lengths to bring to the ceremonies at least one descendant of each of the 40 former presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt IV of Brooklyn; Andrew Jackson VI of Knoxville, Tenn.; and William Howard Taft III of Washington. Another invitee, Eliza Garfield of Baltimore, is a direct descendant of Presidents James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison and William Henry Harrison.
Last Sunday, actor William Sommerfield arrived by boat at South Street Seaport from Elizabeth, N.J., in a re-creation of the final leg of Washington's journey from Mount Vernon. Sommerfield is to read about three minutes of the first president's 20-minute inauguration speech after being sworn in by New York Chief Judge Sol Wachtler.
About 4,000 guests, mostly VIPs, have received tickets to the inauguration, although hundreds of thousands are expected to fill lower Manhattan for fireworks and other festivities.
Washington, then 57, unanimously elected without leaving his front porch, "was very worried about how people would react to him," historian James T. Flexner said. "Although he hated crowds, he was absolutely swamped with enthusiasm as he made his way along the roads."
When Washington reached New York, the first Congress was debating whether he should be addressed as "His Excellency," "His Highness" or some other revered title. Washington went to Federal Hall in a four-horse carriage attended by slaves. His hair was powdered, and he wore a brown broadcloth suit made in Hartford to advertise "domestic manufactures."
After taking the oath on the balcony, Washington went inside to address the House and Senate. His speech produced no memorable phrases.
Speaking in a low, quavering voice and making awkward hand gestures, the new president said he was "unpracticed in the duties of civil administration" and called on Congress to avoid "local prejudices or attachments." One-third of the speech was devoted to religious references.
"He was not an orator," Flexner said. "He didn't go in for eloquence." Flexner said Washington abandoned his 73-page written speech, in which he detailed more specific goals, because he did not want to encroach on congressional prerogatives.
After the inauguration, a parade made its way to Washington's rented home at 3 Cherry Street, near the modern site of the Brooklyn Bridge.