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The City Hall Park Project February 12, 2007
by H. Arthur Bankoff and Alyssa Loorya

Excavations in the late 1990s revealed evidence from New York's formative years.

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The eighteenth century was crucial to the development of New York. At its beginning, New York was a small British trading colony of 12,309 people. By its end, the city's population had grown to 79,216 people and it was the capital of the United States. Few places in this country illustrate such an explosion of civic growth as dramatically as City Hall Park. On a broader scale, City Hall Park [image] is one of our only witnesses not only to the turmoil of the Revolutionary War and the occupation of New York, but also to the development of public institutions based on an emerging philosophy of civic responsibility.

The City Hall Park archaeological project recovered approximately 250,000 archaeological remains that can reveal information about the civic transformation of the eighteenth century. Archaeology uncovered portions of colonial and Revolutionary War barracks where British officers and soldiers were housed both before and during the British occupation of New York; the Almshouse, which housed the ill and impoverished; the Bridewell, a prison; and the New Gaol, another penal institution.

The site provides unparalleled opportunities to combine a rich body of historic documents with archaeological finds to illuminate all facets of public life in New York during these tumultuous times.

The Commons

City Hall Park, known as the Commons in the eighteenth century, is a triangular plateau of land with the modern borders of Broadway on the west, Park Row and Centre Street on the east, and Chambers Street on the north. Early colonial use of the Commons, rooted in Dutch tradition, was as communal pasture. [image] Because of its location at the town's outer limits, the eighteenth-century Commons was an appropriate location for those groups considered "undesirable" at the time. The first known governmental use of the Commons was an execution in 1691. Governmental usage increased steadily throughout the eighteenth century. The first Almshouse was built in 1735. During the 1730s and 1740s, the military began using the Commons as a parade ground and erected a palisade along its northern boundary in 1745. In 1757, the Upper Barracks and New Gaol were constructed on the Commons.

As the city continued expanding northward, the Commons became less isolated. Despite its increased institutional use, the Commons continued to be used as a public gathering space, either for celebration or demonstration. Opponents of British policies rallied at the Commons, and from 1766 to 1770, British soldiers cut down four of the five Liberty Poles erected there by the "Sons of Liberty." During occupation, American prisoners-of-war were housed in the Gaol and Bridewell. After the war, the Barracks were removed and the primary function of the Commons was again civic. Construction began on City Hall in 1803 and the Tweed Courthouse in 1860. Both structures remain in City Hall Park today.

Timeline of Structures on the Commons

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Windmills, built 1663-1664 and 1692-1695
John Harris House (ca. 1720-1730)
First Almshouse, 1735
Palisade, 1745
Powder Magazine, 1747
New Gaol, built 1757-1759
Upper Barracks, 1757
Teller House, 1760-1765
Second Barracks, 1774
British Barracks, 1782
First four Liberty Poles, 1766-1767, location unknown
Fifth Liberty Pole, 1770 (on Harris Lot)
Bridewell, 1775
City Gallows, 1784
Second Almshouse, built 1796-1797
City Hall, built 1803-1812
Rotunda, 1818
New York County (Tweed) Courthouse, 1861

Excavation
City Hall Park is part of the landmarked African Burial Ground and The Commons Historic District because of its known archaeological potential.

The Project
The City Hall Park Project is an ongoing analysis of the archaeological collection from excavations at City Hall Park.

Artifact Summary
The artifacts from City Hall Park come from various contexts, some in association with architectural or burial features, some from trash deposits.

Almshouses
The primary function of the Almshouses was to house the poor, the infirm, and the impoverished.

The Bridewell and New Gaol
The New Gaol was built in response to the city's growing crime problem, and the Bridewell was meant to be a debtor's prison and workhouse.

New York City during the Revolution
During the mid-eighteenth century, the continuing presence of hundreds of military and naval personnel and the increasing civilian population fueled a construction boom.

Crolius and Remmey Potters
The Crolius and Remmey potters were among the first stoneware potters of the German tradition in Manhattan.

The City Hall Park Project is H. Arthur Bankoff, Project Director, Thomas H. McGovern, Project Director, Neil Smith, Project Director, Sophia Perdikaris, Project Director, Zooarchaeology, Edwin Burrows, Project Director, History, and Alyssa Loorya, Archaeological Laboratory Director.

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© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America
archive.archaeology.org/online/features/cityhallpark
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