Historic New York City
New York has come a long way, from its origins as the humble 17th-century Dutch trading post of New Amsterdam, to its present-day status as the largest and most influential city in America. Its five boroughs--Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island--encompass an astonishing diversity of neighborhoods, ethnicities, languages, cultures and backgrounds, while its many attractions continue to beckon tourists and transplants from around the globe. Visitors to New York City today can trace the city's rich history through a variety of buildings, monuments and public spaces, including (but definitely not limited to) the destinations outlined below.
- Historical Must-Sees
- New York: Off the Beaten Path
- Famous/Infamous New York City Natives
- New York: Historical Fun Facts
Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island
The Statue of Liberty, looming 305 feet (93 meters) over Upper New York Bay, stands as an enduring symbol of freedom and democracy and one of the foremost American icons. Given to the United States by France to symbolize the friendship between the two nations, "Lady Liberty" was dedicated in 1886. In her raised right hand, she holds a giant torch, while in her left she grasps a tablet bearing the date of the Declaration of Independence. Visitors to the Statue of Liberty (designated a National Monument in 1924 and restored for its centennial in 1986) pass by a plaque bearing the famous sonnet "The New Colossus," written by Emma Lazarus, on their way to an elevator-ride to the observation deck in the pedestal (check in advance to see if the elevator is in service; if not, the pedestal deck is also accessible by stairway). Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, increased security measures are in place and the statue's crown is only accessible through special pre-arranged reservations. Exhibits on the history of the Statue of Liberty, including the statue's original 1886 torch, are contained in the statue's base.
Also part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, and also administered by the National Park Service, is nearby Ellis Island, home to a federal immigration station from 1892 to 1954. During those years, a full 12 million of the 16 million immigrants who arrived in the U.S. passed through Ellis Island on their way to a new life in the New World. Ellis Island opened to the public in 1976; visitors can tour the Immigration Museum in the restored Main Arrivals Hall and trace their ancestors through millions of immigrant arrival records made available to the public in 2001.
Federal Hall National Memorial
Federal Hall, located at 26 Wall Street, served as the birthplace of American government: George Washington took the first presidential oath of office here on April 30, 1789 (a large statue of Washington commemorates this event) and the first Congress met in Federal Hall while drafting the Bill of Rights. After Philadelphia beat out New York as the national capital in 1790, the building served as New York's city hall (as it had in the pre-Revolutionary years) until it was demolished in 1812. A customs house built on the site opened in 1842 (Herman Melville worked there as a customs inspector), and when customs moved 20 years later, the building became the U.S. Sub-Treasury. It held millions of dollars worth of gold and silver in its subterranean vaults until 1920, when the Federal Reserve Bank replaced the Sub-Treasury system. Federal Hall National Memorial, with its soaring Doric columns, is one of the most prominent Greek Revival buildings in the city; the hall's museum chronicles 400 years of New York's history.
New York Stock Exchange
Not far away from the Federal Hall National Memorial stands the New York Stock Exchange, located at 11 Wall Street, at the intersection of Wall and Broad Streets. Tours are not offered, but the neoclassical building (designed by architect George B. Post and opened in 1903) is well worth a look from outside. Six massive Corinthian columns--said to impart a feeling of substance and stability, even in uncertain economic times--support the Exchange's Broad Street facade, and John Quincy Adams Ward's famous sculpture "Integrity Protecting the Works of Man" is one of the most recognizable and photographed aspects of the building.
Across Broadway from Federal Hall and the New York Stock Exchange is another, even older piece of New York City history: Trinity Church. Though a royal charter from King William III of England created the first Trinity Church and its parish all the way back in 1697, and the church was a stronghold of Loyalist sentiment during the American Revolution, the current church building was built in the 1840s. Designed by Richard Upjohn, it was one of the first examples of Neo-Gothic architecture to appear in the United States. In addition to the graves of early New Yorkers such as William Bradford (editor of the city's first newspaper), the burial ground surrounding Trinity Church houses a monument to Alexander Hamilton (killed in a duel in 1804 by his archrival Aaron Burr) as well as an ornate Revolutionary War memorial. The on-site Trinity Museum displays the church's original 17th-century charter, as well as a number of special exhibitions that rotate throughout the year.
Empire State Building & Chrysler Building
These two iconic Midtown skyscrapers are fixtures in any skyline view of New York City, and a must-visit for those interested in the city's 20th-century history. Designed by William Van Alen, the Chrysler Building (at 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue) is an Art Deco-style masterpiece, with a distinctive sunburst-patterned stainless steel spire. Automaker Walter P. Chrysler commissioned the building, and requested that stainless steel radiator caps in the form of Mercury be incorporated into the façade to suggest its connection with the automobile industry. At the time of its construction, the Chrysler Building was in competition with two other building projects--including the Empire State Building, largely financed by General Motors executive John J. Raskob--to become the tallest structure in the world. After that 180-foot spire was attached in 1929, the Chrysler Building briefly held that title at 1,046 feet (318.8 meters).
Working from a design by William Lamb inspired by the clean vertical lines of a simple pencil, the Empire State Building (on Fifth Avenue at 34th Street) rose quickly after the start of construction in March 1930. When it was completed, the steel-framed structure stood 102 stories and 1,250 feet (381 meters high)--though the antenna on top brought its total height to around 1,400 feet--and was the highest structure in the world until 1954. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, the Empire State Building again became New York's tallest building; its observation deck, on the 86th floor, offers unparalleled panoramic views of the city from a glass-enclosed pavilion as well as an open-air promenade.
In 1858, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux won a public competition for their design of what would become Central Park, the first public park built in America. Their "Greensward" plan, for an entirely man-made park that would be intended only for public use, took more than 15 years and $14 million (the equivalent of about $200 million today) to build; it officially opened in 1876. Today, the sprawling park measures some 843 acres, inside a six-mile perimeter extending from Central Park West to Fifth Avenue and from 59th Street to 110th Street. It contains 136 acres of woodlands; 250 acres of lawns; seven different bodies of water totaling some 150 acres; 58 miles of pedestrian paths; 4.5 miles of bridle paths for horseback riding; and 6.5 miles of winding roads for biking or jogging. Starting in 1980, a public-private partnership between New York City and the Central Park Conservancy restored and preserved Central Park, which now welcomes more than 25 million visitors per year. The park's many attractions include a historic carousel, a zoo, a nature observatory, two ice skating rinks and several theaters.
Located at the heart of Greenwich Village, one of New York's most charming and historic neighborhoods, Washington Square is bounded by Fifth Avenue, Waverly Place, West 4th and Macdougal Streets. Once a marsh, the area was used as a potter’s field and as the site of public executions beginning in 1797 . In 1826, it became a military parade ground and the next year was made a public park. Its most prominent feature, the Washington Memorial Arch facing Fifth Avenue, was first built out of wood and plaster in 1889 to commemorate the centennial of George Washington's inauguration; it proved to be such a popular success that it was rebuilt in stone in 1895. Famous to readers of the novels of Henry James (who lived in a house on the square as a infant and spent time visiting relatives there as well) and as a center for "beatnik" youth culture in the 1960s, Washington Square and its namesake park declined in the 1970s, but conditions have vastly improved in more recent years, especially after a comprehensive reconstruction of the park and its monuments.
Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace
On October 27, 1858, Theodore Roosevelt--who would become one of the most beloved figures in American history--was born in a brownstone building at 28 East 20th Street, between Broadway and Park Avenue South in the elegant Gramercy Park neighborhood. The son of wealthy and socially prominent parents, Roosevelt lived in the house until he was 14 years old; he later attended Harvard University before heading West to make a name for himself as a rancher, naturalist, explorer and author. He entered New York politics for the first time at 23 and was elected governor of New York in 1898 and vice president of the United States two years later. He became the nation's 26th president in 1901, when William McKinley was assassinated. He took the opportunity to pursue progressive reforms, including the conservation of public lands and antitrust legislation, and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. After his second term ended in 1909, Roosevelt remained an active force in national politics, forming his own political party, the Bull Moose Party, after failing to win another Republican presidential nomination in 1912. Though the original house where Roosevelt was born was demolished in 1916, the site was purchased in 1919 (soon after Roosevelt's death) by the Women's Roosevelt Memorial Association. The structure was rebuilt and outfitted with many of its original furnishings, obtained from Roosevelt's sisters and wife. The National Park Service administers the house, and offers guided hourly tours of five period rooms Tuesdays through Saturdays. Visitors may also explore two different museum galleries filled with original items from Roosevelt's life.
New York: Off the Beaten Path
Tucked in a V-shaped pocket of the New York City grid (where the Bowery--now 4th Avenue--swerves west towards Union Square near 8th Street), this Italianate brownstone building houses Cooper Union, established as a institute for the study of science and art in 1859 and endowed by the wealthy industrialist Peter Cooper. On February 27, 1860, an audience of 1,500 paid 25 cents a ticket to watch Abraham Lincoln give a now-famous speech about slavery and disunion here. Published by Horace Greeley in Tribune the next day, the speech established Lincoln's legitimacy as a presidential candidate, and paved the way for his historic election later that year. Later funded by the Hewitt and Carnegie families, Cooper Union boasted the first free public reading room in New York City, and the building was designated a historic landmark in 1966.
Morgan Library and Museum
This elegant Italian Renaissance-style palazzo was built between 1902 and 1906 and designed by Charles McKim of the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White as a library and personal office for the famed New York financier J. Pierpont Morgan. Located just to the east of Morgan's home on Madison Avenue and 36th Street, the building became a repository for his immense collections of art, manuscripts and rare books. In 1924, 11 years after Morgan's death, his son J.P. Morgan Jr. turned the Morgan Library into a public institution; it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Today, the original McKim library is part of an expanded complex housing a treasure trove of artistic and literary works, including drawings by Michelangelo, Picasso and Rembrandt; manuscripts by such luminaries as Milton, Keats, Byron and Dickens; sheet music written by Mozart and Beethoven; a copy of "Frankenstein" annotated by Mary Shelley; and three Gutenberg Bibles. After a massive renovation in 2006, the building became even more light-filled and beautiful, and today it stands as an enduring legacy of Morgan's influence on the city in which he made his fortune.
Famous/Infamous New York City Natives
Born into a distinguished New York family in 1862, Wharton married a Boston banker, Edward Wharton, in 1885, and began seriously writing several years later, modeling her work after that of her friend and fellow sometime New Yorker Henry James. Her second novel, "The House of Mirth" (1905), told the story of a young socialite trying to find a wealthy husband, and the consequences of the failure to do so in New York's strict social hierarchy. The book’s popularity earned her a wide audience, and established a market for similar "novels of manners." In 1913, Wharton divorced her husband and moved permanently to France, though she continued to write about the lavishly appointed drawing rooms and intricate human dramas of high-society New York. "The Age of Innocence" (1920), the story of a tangled love triangle set in the 1870s, met with even more critical acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize (the first awarded to a female author). In all, Wharton wrote a total of more than 50 books, including fiction, short stories, travel writing and criticism.
Baldwin was born in 1924 in Harlem, and grew up in poverty as the eldest of nine children. As a teenager, he became a preacher in a small revivalist church; after graduating high school, he worked for the New Jersey railroad before moving first to the artistic mecca of Greenwich Village--where he met the prominent black author Richard Wright--and then to Paris, where he would begin his own literary career. Baldwin's first novel, "Go Tell it on the Mountain" (1953), was a semi-autobiographical work about growing up in Harlem, in which he poignantly describes the struggles of a 14-year-old African-American boy trying to gain independence from his abusive stepfather and make his own way, physically and spiritually, in a world marked by poverty and racism. Along with this early novel, Baldwin is best remembered for his pioneering essays examining black identity and the state of racial struggles in America, written during the growing civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Disillusioned by the assassinations of such black leaders as Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Baldwin moved back to France, where he continued to write until his death in 1987.
Perhaps no other filmmaker has become as linked in the public imagination with New York City as Woody Allen, born Allen Stewart Konigsberg in 1935 in Brooklyn. Allen first made his name on the stand-up comedy club circuit before being hired to write material for television. He would go on to appear as an actor in many of his own films, mining his urban middle-class Jewish background to create his trademark persona: a often humorous, sometimes infuriating blend of insecure, anxious and self-deprecating. In his most acclaimed movies, including "Annie Hall" (1977), "Manhattan" (1979), "Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986) and "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994), Allen treats his beloved city as the most compelling of characters, giving audiences all over the world a glimpse into the theaters, restaurants, hotels, landmarks and parks that give New York its distinctive rhythm and sensibility.
South Bronx-born John Gotti was a teenage gang leader in the East New York section of Brooklyn when he became involved with the Gambino family, leaders of one of the city's largest organized crime syndicates. Despite serving two prison terms, Gotti rose through the ranks of the crime world, and by the 1980s had become New York's most visible crime lord. Made leader of the Gambino family in 1986, he seemed to relish his role as a celebrity gangster, earning the nickname "Dapper Don" for his impeccable style and "Teflon Don" after several unsuccessful prosecutions. Finally, in 1992, the FBI had enough evidence (and the testimony of Gotti associate Salvatore Gravano) to convict Gotti on 13 criminal counts including murder, racketeering and obstruction of justice. He was sentenced to life in prison, and died of cancer in a prison medical center in Missouri in 2002.
New York: Historical Fun Facts
A Historic Bargain: According to a document dating to 1626 and dubbed "the birth certificate of New York," Dutch traders purchased "the Island Manhattes"--better known as Manhattan--from its Native American inhabitants for the value of 60 guilders (approximately 24 dollars). At the time, the colony of New Amsterdam was relatively unimportant to Holland's international trading empire: The document, a report to Dutch officials, includes news of the purchase between reports of babies being born and goods such as furs being delivered.
Fun Facts About Lady Liberty: The Statue of Liberty has seven pointed spikes on her crown, said to represent either the seven continents or the seven seas. The original name for the statue upon its presentation as a gift from France in 1885 was "Liberty Enlightening the World." Gustave Eiffel, the designer of Paris' famed Eiffel Tower, was commissioned to create the iron framework around which the statue was built.
The Big Apple: Research into the origins of "The Big Apple," a popular nickname for New York City, has traced it to the 1920s, when a racetrack writer named John J. Fitz Gerald used it as his catchphrase and in the title for his column in the New York Morning Telegraph. He claimed to have picked up the term--meaning "the big time," where the most money was to be won--from African-American stablehands at a New Orleans racetrack. Later, the Big Apple was used among jazz musicians to refer to the city's coveted gigs; in the 1930s a jazz club in Harlem took the name Big Apple, and Harlem itself was called "the Apple" around this time. In the 1970s, an official publicity campaign headed by Charles Gillet, president of the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, revived the term, and it has been in widespread use ever since.
The Real Gotham City: "Gotham," an even older nickname for New York City, was originally a village in Nottinghamshire, England known for its eccentric inhabitants. The writer Washington Irving first used the term to describe New York in 1807; it later became famous as Gotham City, the New York-esque fictional home of the superhero Batman (created by Bob Kane for DC Comics).
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir: Former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who made New York City her home from the time she left the White House until her death, enjoyed walking and jogging in Central Park, particularly on the path running around the Reservoir (located between 86th and 96th Streets). After her death in 1994, New York officials renamed the body of water the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir as a way of honoring her charitable contributions and the role she played in the life of the city. The reservoir, which covers 106 acres, or a full one eighth of the park’s surface, is 40 feet deep and holds over a billion gallons of water.
An Official Flower: In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation joined with the New Yorkers for Parks (NY4P) organization to launch the Daffodil Project, which aimed to plant the sunny yellow flower in locations all over the city as a living memorial to the victims and a symbol of hope and renewal. Now an annual initiative, the project plants hundreds of thousands of daffodil bulbs in more than 2,000 sites around the five boroughs every year. In 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the daffodil had been selected as the official flower of New York City.
How to Cite this Page:
Historic New York City
Historic New York City. (2013). The History Channel website. Retrieved 1:04, December 7, 2013, from http://www.history.com/topics/historic-new-york-city.
Historic New York City. [Internet]. 2013. The History Channel website. Available from: http://www.history.com/topics/historic-new-york-city [Accessed 7 Dec 2013].
“Historic New York City.” 2013. The History Channel website. Dec 7 2013, 1:04 http://www.history.com/topics/historic-new-york-city.
“Historic New York City,” The History Channel website, 2013, http://www.history.com/topics/historic-new-york-city [accessed Dec 7, 2013].
“Historic New York City,” The History Channel website, http://www.history.com/topics/historic-new-york-city (accessed Dec 7, 2013).
Historic New York City [Internet]. The History Channel website; 2013 [cited 2013 Dec 7] Available from: http://www.history.com/topics/historic-new-york-city.
Historic New York City, http://www.history.com/topics/historic-new-york-city (last visited Dec 7, 2013).
Historic New York City. The History Channel website. 2013. Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/historic-new-york-city. Accessed Dec 7, 2013.