City in the Sky
Updated: Nov 11, 2021
The hidden history of New York's City Hall, how to find portals to centuries past in Lower Manhattan, and a salute to an unsung hero of today's skyline.
My previous post, Why George Washington Stopped at Mrs. Varian’s Tavern, was about a bar (obviously). This post began as a tip-of-the-helmet tribute to those who’ve built our city—notably City Hall and its environs. Yet here we are again at a drinking establishment.
Slideshow: City Hall (lower left), which my Devoe relatives of yore helped build. My cousin Paul DeFino, "toes to the edge," some 60 stories above Nassau Street, in Lower Manhattan.
Turns out there have been three (well, three and a half) City Halls, and the first one (and a half) happened to be bars. Built in 1642, New Amsterdam’s City Tavern (Stadt Herbergh) was an imposing stone structure at the corner of Pearl Street and Coenties Slip, on the East River, as shown by this 19th-century engraving, The Old Stadt Huys of New Amsterdam. (City geography has changed over the centuries. Pearl Street is now two blocks from the waterfront.)
In 1653, New Amsterdam Director-General Peter Stuyvesant converted the popular gathering spot into the first official City Hall (Stadt Huys), which continued to serve beer, according to an account on NYC.gov.
Some four-and-a-half decades later, structural damage forced a brief relocation next door to Lovelace Tavern, remnants of which are on view through glass sidewalk portals on Pearl between Coenties Alley and Broad Street (the perimeter of the original City Hall is outlined nearby in yellow bricks). See this fascinating post by the Museum of the City of New York for details about the discovery of the tavern's foundation and floorboards, and photos of a cache of 17th-century artifacts.
Slideshow: Hidden New Amsterdam history on a stretch of Pearl Street along the exterior of 85 Broad: Outline of the first Stadt Huys; a "Portal to the Past" (in this shot, more a reflection of the present); windows into Lovelace Tavern below.
Meanwhile, the British—for this was now New York—erected the next iteration, at 26 Wall Street, in 1700. The new City Hall, which was still being fine-tuned years after its opening, eventually offered meeting rooms and courtrooms, as well as a dungeon in the basement, debtors in the garret, and a cage, whipping post, pillory, and stocks nearby outside.
Renovated and renamed Federal Hall for George Washington’s inauguration in 1789, the building is now a National Park Service Memorial. (See View of the Old City Hall, Wall St. and some 2018 images of George Washington presiding over modern-day commerce in the slideshow below.) But by 1802 the ballooning city bureaucracy—of which yours truly is now a proud member!—had outgrown its Wall Street location, and a design competition for a new City Hall was announced.
Of the more than two dozen submissions, an elegant, Federal-style design by French émigré architect Joseph François Mangin and New York builder John McComb Jr. was selected. Mangin was off the project before construction began in 1803, possibly because of his dissatisfaction with changes made to the team’s original plan. (One shudders to think of how he'd react to the NYPD fencing out front today. But as you'll see in the slideshow below, the interior is as gorgeous as ever.)
Apparently, two of my family members also had roles, albeit much smaller ones, in the construction of the current seat of New York City government and the facing 8.8-acre lot that’s served as a pasture, a parade ground, a public-execution site, and, finally, City Hall Park.
Like me, John and Peter Devoe descended from Frederick Deveaux, a Huguenot whose family fled France for Mannheim, Germany, when he was about 12 (a story for a future post). In around 1675 Frederick immigrated to New York, where his granddaughter Elizabeth would marry Isaac Varian (aka Original Isaac).
John and Peter are my second cousins six times removed—six being the number of generations back, or “removed,” they are from mine. (Got that?)
OK, so according to family historian Thomas F. De Voe’s exhaustive 1885 tome Genealogy of the De Veaux Family. Introducing the Numerous Forms of Spelling the Name of Various Branches and Generations in the Past Eleven Hundred Years (which may be my favorite book title ever), John (b. 1770) was “a sculptor and also in the stone-cutting business; he became engaged in the erection of City Hall (Park) in 1802 and worked on it to its completion
John’s brother Peter (b. 1774), also a stonecutter, “became somewhat prominent as a builder, and among the noted buildings which he was engaged in erecting his descendants point to the City Hall in the Park, in which he was employed as the Superintendent in its erection.”
I confess I have not yet scoured the Municipal Archives for evidence of my cousins’ participation (or Peter’s prominence) in the grand erection, which was completed in 1812. But check out this record from Volume 5 of a very exhaustive six-book series, The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909, by I.N. Phelps Stokes, which was published from 1915 to 1928: An entry about “the running expenses of the new hall” cites McComb’s last account book of audited transactions for the project, and includes a March 12, 1813, payment to Peter Devoe, a balance “for cutting 8 urns—$140.”
And here’s a newspaper ad (below), perhaps referencing some other, later project, from the May 21, 1816, edition of the New-York Evening Post. Devoe and 14 others advertise for “40 Journeymen Stone Cutters, to whom liberal wages will be given, at the rate of one dollar and eighty-seven cents per day, comprising ten hours.”
Upon its completion, City Hall was one of the three tallest buildings in the city, so spacious 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,” notes the New York City Public Design Commission. Many of the rooms have since been repurposed, but the building “remains one of the oldest continuously used City Halls in the nation that still houses its original governmental functions.”
Of course, majestic City Hall was long-ago surpassed as one of New York’s tallest buildings. And some of those that tower over the city today are rising with the help of a relative who’s continuing the family’s construction tradition: Paul DeFino, my first cousin once removed.
Stepping “toes to the edge” in the wind and the cold along open concrete floors suspended dizzyingly high above the streets, Paul installs the safety netting that protects workers and pedestrians during the building of those bristling edifices that define our endlessly evolving skyline.
The best part of his job?
“The views,” Paul says without hesitation.
Spoken like a true New Yorker.
Above right: Safety netting in Tudor City. Above: View from a Brooklyn Navy Yard project. Photos by Paul DeFino.
This series on family history, mysteries, and the city is a gift to my relatives and, I hope, a fun read for everyone else. Where’s your family from? Do you have genealogy anecdotes or research tips to share? Feel free to comment below. (Your email address will not be visible.)
See also: Why George Washington Stopped at Mrs. Varian’s Tavern; Original Isaac; Varians at Sea
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