Tag Archives: 9/11

A few historic highlights in the Big Apple

We didn’t focus as strictly on historic sites in New York as we did in Boston, but we did manage to do a little heritage touring on our last day in the Big Apple.  We made a point of visiting Federal Hall National Memorial on Wall Street, site of the nation’s first Capitol and George Washington’s first inauguration.  The original building is gone, but today an impressive classical structure and a statue of Washington mark the spot.

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Inside the building is an exhibit on the trial of colonial printer John Peter Zenger, arrested for publishing articles critical of New York’s royal governor.  Zenger’s 1735 trial for seditious libel in the original Federal Hall—at that time it was New York’s City Hall—proved to be a landmark case in the history of freedom of the press.  His lawyer argued that demonstrably factual statements cannot be considered libelous, the jury agreed, and Zenger walked away a free man.

You’ll also find Washington’s inaugural Bible inside, on loan from St. John’s Lodge…

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…and the stone on which he stood while taking the oath of office.

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After the inaugural ceremony, Washington attended a service at nearby St. Paul’s Chapel.  He continued to worship there while the capital remained in New York, and you can still see his pew, right underneath an oil painting of the Great Seal of the U.S.

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On the east side of the church is a memorial to Gen. Richard Montgomery, killed while leading the attack on Quebec at the end of 1775.  Montgomery’s remains were moved to St. Paul’s with a great deal of fanfare in 1818.

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Unlike its mother church, St. Paul’s Chapel made it through the great New York fire of ’76 and is now the oldest church building in the city.  In fact, surviving catastrophes has been something of a hallmark of St. Paul’s.  It’s right next to the World Trade Center site, but miraculously came through the 9/11 attacks without any major damage.  Visitors left thousands of stuffed animals, flowers, cards, and other memorials around the church after the attacks, and some of these mementoes are on exhibit inside the sanctuary.  (You can see a few of them in the photo of Washington’s pew.)  Emergency personnel working at the WTC site stayed at St. Paul’s during the recovery effort.  And the building is still there, a dozen years after that awful September morning and more than two centuries since Washington stepped inside on the very day American government opened for business.

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Filed under American Revolution, Museums and Historic Sites

Relics

I spent a year after college working as a curatorial assistant in the same Lincoln/Civil War museum where I was an undergraduate intern.  We had a small staff, with one part-time guest relations employee.  On days she didn’t work, the rest of us had to keep one eye on whatever we were usually doing and another eye on the front desk to check visitors in.  A row of floor-to-ceiling glass windows separated the office area from the lobby and gift shop.

One Tuesday I spotted an elderly couple walk through the door from the atrium, so I ran over to the front counter to take their admission fee.  Before I had a chance to do the usual little spiel—temporary exhibit gallery upstairs, restrooms behind you and to the left, no flash pictures—the wife said, “We just heard on the radio that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center.”

I visualized something like a small prop plane jammed into the side of a more or less structurally intact building.  “Gee, that’s odd,” I said, and went back to what I assumed would be a mundane Tuesday.  It wasn’t.

We didn’t have a TV in the building, and the news websites couldn’t keep up with all the traffic, so we spent several hours huddled around a radio.  I didn’t see the images that riveted most of the world until I got home.  Instead, I heard radio announcers trying to make sense of what was happening and sort out all the rumors that were flying around—a missile into the Pentagon, a car bomb at the State Department, explosions at the White House and FBI headquarters.  In the same way that the creature in a horror movie is scarier before the director lets you get a good look at him, what happened that day seemed especially frightening when you couldn’t see it unfold on TV.

One of the things I learned about public history back in those days between college and grad school was that good interpretation is as much as about quantity as quality.  Sometimes objects require you to slather on the interpretation and tell visitors why they matter and what we can learn from them.  Other objects speak for themselves, and the public historian just needs to get out of the way. Artifacts like that do your work for you, because they’re more eloquent than any exhibit copy.  A simple identification label will suffice.

So here are two such artifacts, separated by exactly 224 years—to the very day—of American history.

Revolutionary militiamen carried this flag at the Battle of Brandywine, PA on Sept. 11, 1777 (from vexman.net).

Recovery workers found this one in the rubble of the World Trade Center (from the NMAH).

click to enlarge

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Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory