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Evolution of City Hall Park and Foley Square

© 2006, Philip Ernest Schoenberg, Ph. D.

Just over two hundred years ago, there was a series of marshes in the areas that are now called City Hall Park and Foley Square. Foley Square was the site of a big pond that the early settlers called “The Collect” or “ Collect Pond.” In fact, the area was so low lying that during the spring floods, the Indians could paddle from the East River to the Hudson River through the Collect Pond.

For hundreds of years, the area had been the site of an Indian village. It was located just north of today's City Hall Park between today's Chambers and Reade Streets, Broadway and Centre Streets. The village moved with the seasons. The Indians were part of the Leni Lenape, Algonquin, or Delaware people. The population on the site may have been between 5,000 and 10,000. The total Leni Lenape population of Manhattan Island may have been as high as 30,000 and the New York metropolitan area may have been 65,000. Diseases reduced the native population of the area to 200 by the year 1700.

The village was known as “Werpoes” or “Hare” in the language of the Algonquin Indians. They were semi-nomadic. The village would move each planting season as the Indians burned the woods to gain new land to farm and let old land recover. The Leni Lenape planted the “Three Sisters”—squash, corn, and beans. They would also go to Washington Heights and Inwood neighborhoods of Manhattan to hunt deer and other animals. The Dutch described the game as so abundant that all you had to do was simply go to the water and grab a fish.

In the Dutch period, the area was set aside as a Commons where anyone could graze a cow or sheep for free. It also became the ceremonial area for parades, celebrations, executions, and public gatherings. Just before the end of the Dutch period, Jan de Wit and Denys Hartogveldt built a windmill just south of present-day City Hall to grind wheat. It was the first structure on what would become City Hall Park.

In the British period, the area that had been center of the Indian village became the African Burial Ground. The blacks, slave and free, segregated in life, were segregated in death and were not permitted to be buried in the churchyards. By the end of the eighteenth century, the area was forgotten as residential development moved northward. An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Africans and African-Americans were buried between today's Chambers and Reade Streets, Broadway and Centre Streets.

In the area where the Tweed Courthouse is now located, an almshouse for the poor, a debtors prison known as the New Gaol, and a barracks were built between 1736 and 1760. Once upon a time, students from nearby King's College (now Columbia University) on College Street (now Park Place) used to picnic and gambol. The college founded in 1752, moved uptown to what is now midtown in 1854. At the corner of Broadway and Vesey Street, southwest of the park, St. Paul's Chapel was built in 1765 for the poor suburbanites who could not walk the four blocks to Trinity Church. The third-oldest structure of European presence on Manhattan Island, the Chapel holds the record for continuous church services on the same spot. This is where George Washington attended religious services after taking the presidential oath of office in 1789.

Then the American Revolution made some changes. In 1766, a group of New Yorkers known as the Sons of Liberty erected a Liberty Pole outside the Soldiers' Barracks. In 1921, a replica of the pole was erected near the original location. In 1776, Alexander Hamilton organized what would become the oldest unit of the American Army. On July 9, 1776 George Washington had the Declaration of Independence read to inspire the troops. Unfortunately, the British won control of Manhattan Island. Hundreds of American prisoners died in the New Gaol because the British officer in charge embezzled the money set aside to feed them. Also many were executed. In 1830, the New Gaol was converted into the City Hall of Records. It was torn down after it was replaced by the Surrogate Court House in 1904 on the northwest corner of Chambers and Centre Streets. It had been the oldest municipal building in Greater New York.

The second City Hall—now the site of Federal Hall National Memorial—was used by Congress as its meeting place between 1784 and 1790, when the city built our third and present City Hall. John McComb Jr. and Joseph Francois Mangin designed City Hall in Georgian style. Construction begun in 1803 and it was completed in 1812. At the time, it was criticized as being too far north of the city's population center. Between 1861 and 1881, the Tweed Court House was built north of it. Today, it houses the New York City Department of Education.

In 1842, the city celebrated its new water system, the Croton Aqueduct, designed to fight fire and provide New York City's first dependable supply of pure water by building fountains at Union Square, Bowling Green, and, of course, City Hall Park. The aqueduct drew water from the Croton Dam more than forty miles north of the city, and was considered one of the great engineering feats of the 19th century. The Croton Fountain was built on the southeast tip of the Park. The Croton Fountain was removed to make way for a Federal Post Office that opened in 1870. At one point, it was the nation's busiest and most profitable post office. Mail Street separated the Post Office from what remained of the park.

In 1871 an ornate granite fountain designed by the noted park architect Jacob Wrey Mould was placed in front of City Hall. In 1920, the fountain was disassembled and shipped to Crotona Park in the Bronx. In 1939, the Post Office was demolished and the land returned to the city. Robert Moses started building in the park but was stopped by local protests. When Rudy Giuliani observed the unfinished status of the park upon taking his second oath of office as mayor, he decided to do something about it. City Hall Park was renovated in 1999 to return to its pre-Civil War splendor as part of his legacy. Jacob Wrey Mould Fountain was returned from the Bronx to the Park, with exact replicas of its centerpiece and lights reconstructed from Mould's designs. Once more people could have a view of St. Paul's Chapel from the fountain area. People living in Tribeca and Chinatown complain that closing parts of the park even before 9/11 has caused problems for pedestrians trying to commute from one part of the city to another.

The west side of City Hall Park on Broadway became the first Ladies' Mile in early nineteenth century. Gradually, it marched northward. Bradford Gilbert's first building in New York was the Broadway-Chambers Building at 277 Broadway, climaxed by his Woolworth Building. The Woolworth Building was the world's tallest building between 1913 and 1929. Most amazing of all, it was built without a mortgage. Today, you can get a condo on the top floors.

In the nineteenth century, the east side of City Hall Park became the publication center of the country. Park Row became known as Newspaper Row. Between the Civil War and World War I, sixty newspapers were published there. The early media barons competed to build the world's tallest buildings. In fact, the building at 15 Park Row was the world's tallest for two weeks!

The area north of City Hall, the Collect Pond had been the city's ritziest neighborhood. George Washington had lived in a rented mansion at 3 Cherry Street close to the Collect Pond. Today, the Brooklyn Bridge is there. Why?

The Collect Pond had been big enough to demonstrate the world's first steam boat in 1787. Robert Fulton had been a passenger on the boat designed by Johnny Fitch. Fulton decided the James Watt steam engine would be an improvement. He won the battle of the marketplace and Fitch became a footnote to history.

The pond became polluted by breweries and tanneries that had taken advantage of the fresh water. In 1808, the Collect Pond was drained and the hills cut down to fill in the pond. However, the city did a bad job of filling in the pond. As a result, the buildings began to sag. The area became the low-rent district of the city—a larger area that would become known as the Lower East Side. As soon as the immigrants learned English and had a better income, they left. In the nineteenth century, the neighborhood became known as the notorious “Five Points” where five streets came together in an area that is now Columbus Park. Jacob Riis crusaded against the slums. The most notorious part of the Five Points was Mulberry Bend in which Riis succeeded getting replaced by Mulberry Bend Park, later named Columbus Park, in 1893.

In the early twentieth century, the nation's most notorious slum was replaced by “Foley Square” where the courts of justice now reside—the Surrogate Court House, the Federal Court House (the last building designed by Bradford Gilbert in 1930), the New York State Supreme Court, the Manhattan Administration Building and many more. As a child in the 1950s, I still remember my father driving through the Manhattan Administration Building to get onto the Brooklyn Bridge!

Today, the “Triumph of the Human Spirit” memorial by Lorenzo Pace in honor of the survivors and victims of the Middle Passage stands in middle of what would have been the Collect Pond or the heart of Foley Square. It was dedicated as part of the city's African Burial Ground Memorial project on the politically incorrect Columbus Day, 2000. The square is still sinking!

Thus, skyscrapers and public works have replaced the Indian village of Werpoes that long ago stood on the spot. I wonder what they would have thought.