City Hall

sights / Architecture

Lonely Planet review

This elegant, cupola-topped marble hall, located in placid City Hall Park facing the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, has been home to New York City’s government since 1812. In keeping with the half-baked civic planning that has often plagued large-scale New York projects, officials neglected to finish the building’s northern side in marble, due to objections about cost. Finishing the northern facade in brownstone and reducing the size of the building overall made a compromise. The domed tower was rebuilt in 1917 after being damaged by two fires, and the original marble (and brownstone) facades were replaced with limestone over a granite base in 1954–56. Its beautiful restoration prompted critic Ada Louise Huxtable to call it a ‘symbol of taste, excellence and quality not always matched by the policies inside.’ After climbing the formal staircase out front – the site of constant press conferences, as well as civil demonstrations (with pre-arranged permits) – you’ll soon find yourself under the soaring rotunda, which is supported by 10 Corinthian columns on the 2nd floor. One highlight inside includes the spot where Abraham Lincoln’s coffin lay in state for a brief time in 1865 (look at the top of the staircase on the 2nd floor). The Governor’s Room, a reception area where the mayor entertains important guests, contains 12 portraits of the founding fathers by John Trumbull, George Washington’s old writing table and other examples of Federal-style furniture, and the remnants of a flag flown at the first president’s 1789 inaugural ceremony. If you take a quick peek into the City Council chambers, you might even see lawmakers of the 51-member body deliberating over issues such as urban development, the budget or civil rights. You can also explore the grand interior of City Hall through free Guided Tours offered by the Art Commission of the City of New York (call for reservations). Out front is bustling City Hall Park, graced with gas lamps, fountains, lovely landscaping, chess tables and benches, making it a nice place to sit with a sandwich for some prime people-watching. Hot months brings Summerfest, a concert series of live R&B and jazz, on weekends. Adding to the excitement here is the fact that it’s often edged by people protesting on one issue or another, unless the groups have planned ahead and gotten a protest permit (required by Mayor Bloomberg for demonstrations within the actual park or on the steps of City Hall).