Monday, June 22, 2015

The Lost Government House -- Broadway at Bowling Green

from the collection of the New York Public Library
On November 25 1783 the last British troops left Manhattan.   Americans set to work establishing their new government and on April 30, 1789 General George Washington took the oath of office as its first President.

That same year Fort Amsterdam, which had stood at the tip of the island since around 1625, was demolished.  The publicly-owned land with its harbor views and cooling breezes, presented a perfect site for the presidential residence. 

Because the Governor’s, or Mansion House, within the fort had been destroyed by fire on December 29, 1773, George Washington lived in a series of borrowed homes along Broadway and on Cherry Street.  And he repeatedly spoke of establishing a new city as the nation’s capital.  City fathers hoped that an appropriate executive mansion might help persuade him to keep the capital in New York.

A design competition was held in April 1790 and architect James Robinson was awarded the commission.   In 1792 he was listed in The New-York Directory and Register as a “house carpenter and master builder.”  (In 1795 New-York Magazine attributed the mansion to “those who had the direction of it, Mssrs. Robinson, Moore, & Smith.”) 

His design was one of which the wealthiest and most sophisticated of the ousted British would have approved.  Elegant and majestic, the Georgian-style home was constructed of red brick with white stone trim.   The two-story portico above the rusticated basement level was accessed by two sweeping curved staircases.  An American eagle was carved into the pediment.

from the collection of the Library of Congress

A century later, in 1898, Daniel Van Pelt in his Leslie’s History of the Greater New York opined that “When the patriots first retook their own in 1783, the aspects of the city must have been dreary in the extreme, with a deplorable ‘Canvastown’ and blacked ruins right in its center.”  But, he wrote, “Among the first efforts at architectural beauty and grandeur, after the Federal Hall must be reckoned the Government House…Upon this advantageously located space was reared an imposing structure, with pillared and pedimented front porch facing the Bowling Green, and making a fine close for the vista from Broadway.”

The cornerstone was laid on May 21, 1790.  But the city fathers’ hopes seemed dashed when, only four months after construction began, Congress voted to move the capital to Philadelphia.  Nevertheless, they pushed ahead—there was always the hope that Philadelphia would prove inadequate.

The magnificent mansion, called the Government House, was completed in 1790.  And now the city had to find a purpose for it. 

Samuel Hollyer's 1905 engraving, depicting the mansion in 1790, includes two cows lounging on the entrance drive.  from the collection of the New York Public Library

The Federal Capital may have abandoned New York; but the city remained the State Capital.  What was intended as the executive mansion became the Governor’s Mansion.   Governor George Clinton, elected 13 years earlier, moved in.  He was followed in the mansion by Governor John Jay in 1795.

Then in 1797 the state capital was relocated to Albany.  New York City was once again presented with the problem of what to do with the Government House.  A road block to some suggestions was the act passed on Mach 16, 1790 which “reserves the property for publick uses solely.”

Apparently officials turned their heads to that fact briefly. For a year prior to May 1, 1799, according historian Isaac N. Phelps in his 1915 book The Iconography of Manhattan Island, the mansion was “leased as a tavern to John Avery.”

Avery’s tenancy came to an end following the passage of the Customs Administration Act in 1799.  The Government House now became the Custom House. 

But the new function would in no way ensure the future for the stately Georgian structure.  While the lower floors operated as the Customs House, the upper floors were leased by the city to the Academy of Arts.   Another organization moved into the building in 1809—the fledgling New York Historical Society.

In 1841 the Society published a small book, Collections of the New-York Historical Society which explained “In 1809, a communication was received from the Academy of Arts, inviting the society to occupy a room in the Government House; the invitation was promptly accepted, and in September of the same year the first meeting was held there.  The north-west room in the second story of that building was appropriated to the society.  The books which had been previously kept in the ‘City Library,’ were removed to the same place.”

But before long the Society, the Academy, and the Customs House would have to find new homes.  In 1811 the Government House was declared “in a ruinous and disreputable appearance.”  On December 18 that year City Surveyor Peter Mesier sent a letter to the Governor which said in part “It is very certain that it will not be advantageous to the state to repair the Government House in New York, and it is equally true that without very extensive repair it will soon be a reproach to the city.”

Mesier pointed out that New York City “did once, I think, offer the state 50,000 Dollars for it, which was thought, by the Surveyor General and others here, to be an inadequate price.” He felt $62,000 was a fair price and “in case that offer shall be made, I shall use my influence to induce [the Legislature] to accept it.”

In May 1812 the State offered the property to New York City; but the interest was gone.  The stipulation that the land could not be resold for private purpose ruined the deal.  With its back to the wall and stuck with what had become a white elephant; the State amended its offer.    The City purchased the decaying mansion and, as quickly as the public lease expired, placed the property at auction.

On May 25, 1815 The Evening Post reported that the entire block on which the Government House stood had been sold at auction for a total of $158,000.  The following day the mansion itself was offered.

Jacob Barker placed the winning bid of $5,050.  Since he had not purchased the land the day before, it seems obvious that he was interested only in the materials that could be reclaimed.

The Government House—only 25 years old—was demolished.  The new Custom House erected on the site lasted only until 1825.  In 1899 the magnificent U.S. Custom House, designed by Cass Gilbert, rose on what was essentially the site of the Government House.  It survives today.

from the collection of the New York Public Library


  1. Very interesting history, but I believe an important part of the story may have been left out? According to photos, before the current Cass Gilbert-designed Custom House was built, the site was occupied by a row of relatively modest Federal style row houses. Here's a link to a website with a photo of the houses from around the turn of the 19th-20th Centuries (scroll down to last photo):

    Benjamin Hemric
    2015 06_22 Monday, 8:15 a.m.

    1. The post was about the Government House, not the site; so I glossed over some of the interim history. But thanks for the interesting info and photos. Great shots.

  2. Those modest row houses built on the site of the custom house were in fact very fine residences in their day and lasted into the early 20th century, however this is a very unusual circumstance where a historic and beautiful building in NYC was replaced by an equally beautiful replacement. Federal Hall is another downtown example of change in NYC that resulted in a landmark being replaced by anothere landmark. Great post.