Editor’s note: Today we’re kicking off a new LES history series with Eric Ferrara, the founder of the Lower East Side History Project. In honor of President’s Day, Eric looks at the enduring allure of this neighborhood to occupants of the White House from the nation’s earliest days.
From the ambitious political architects of our fledgling nation to the most powerful heads-of-state of the 21st century, the Lower East Side has hosted some pretty interesting presidential history.
Former Continental Army Commander George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the United States during a ceremony at Federal Hall in Lower Manhattan on April 30, 1789. After what I’m sure was a night on the town that would make Sean Combs envious, the nation’s earliest Commander-in-Chief retired to his residence at 3 Cherry Street on the Lower East Side.
The elegant, yet publicly accessible mansion was leased by Congress for $845 a year and served as Washington’s home base for the first ten months of his presidential term. With a home office on third floor, Washington soon found it difficult to work with the entire city knocking on his door, so bi-weekly “levees”—or greeting sessions – were established to satisfy public interest.
Washington was no stranger to Lower Manhattan. During the Revolutionary War his army fortified the island and utilized the Bowery to move large numbers of troops and supplies to the numerous forts and artillery batteries throughout the area. On Evacuation Day, 1783, the would-be president paraded down the same thoroughfare, stopping at the site of modern-day Astor Place and more famously, to grab a celebratory drink at the old Bull’s Head Tavern at Bowery and Canal streets.
George and Martha Washington moved further downtown to 39-41 Broadway in April of 1790 and the nation’s first Executive Mansion at 3 Cherry Street was, remarkably, torn down in the 1850s as the neighborhood deteriorated. On a related note, sitting Continental Congress President, John Hancock, lived at 5 Cherry Street in 1786.
In July, 1804 the driving force behind President Washington’s economic policies, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, was killed in a pistol duel with political rival (and Vice President at the time) Aaron Burr. The daring yet slow-triggered Founding Father left behind a wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, and several children.
By 1833, the widowed Mrs. Hamilton moved into a modest townhouse at No. 4 St. Marks Place with daughter Eliza Holly and son Alexander Hamilton (Jr.), along with their respective spouses, where they stayed until 1842. The nearly 200-year old Hamilton-Holly House was designated New York City landmark in 2004.
Though he survived the 1804 duel, Aaron Burr’s political opportunities dwindled—as did his fortune. After several lengthy legal battles, Burr suffered a stroke in 1833 and spent the final years of his life broke, partially paralyzed, and bouncing around from one caretaker to another—including a short stay with a family member at No. 129 Bowery.
The last of America’s Founding Fathers to serve as President of the United States, James Monroe, spent the final year of his life in New York City in a house once located at the corner of Prince and Lafayette Streets. This former student of law under Thomas Jefferson passed away at this location on the nation’s 55th Independence Day, July 4, 1831—eerily making Monroe the third U.S. President to die on July Fourth.
President Monroe was entombed in a family vault at the New York City Marble Cemetery on East Second Street between First and Second Avenues, where his body remained until being removed to Richmond, Virginia in 1858. The Prince Street home where Monroe passed away was demolished in 1919 to make way for a paper factory.
Monroe’s two-term Vice President, the former Governor of New York State, Daniel Tompkins, is buried on the grounds of St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery church at East Tenth Street and First Avenue. A decade after his death in 1825, Tompkins Square Park was opened and named in honor of the popular statesman who personally helped finance the War of 1812.
In February of 1860, 51-year old presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln made his first and only campaign stop in New York City, addressing some of the state’s most influential Republicans at Cooper Union’s Great Hall and taking a tour of the impoverished Five Points. The President’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, suffered great physical and mental illness in her later years and spent the last winter of her life in New York City living at a low-rent motel on Twenty-Sixth Street.
In June of 1865—at the very end of the Civil War—victorious General Ulysses S. Grant came to New York City for a series of events in honor of President Andrew Johnson. The five-foot, two-inch, notoriously gruff warrior was met by overwhelming public adoration and he was, perhaps, a little unprepared for his new-found celebrity status. According to Grant, by William S. McFeely, the general arrived in New York decked out in the most unsophisticated attire; so he was whisked away to Brooks Brothers—then located on Grand Street and Broadway—in order to make the war hero presentable to snobbish fashion-forward New Yorkers.
On the evening of June 7, General Grant entered the Great Hall of Cooper Union to a thunderous cheer of, “Grant! Grant! Grant!” On July 23, 1885, at the age of 63, the war general and 19th President of the United States succumbed to throat cancer and died in Upstate, New York. His body was transported by rail from West Point to City Hall in Lower Manhattan, where an estimated 250,000 mourners visited over a three-day period. Grant’s funeral procession on August 8 drew one of the largest crowds in city history, as onlookers lined the roughly seven-mile route from City Hall to Riverside Drive, where his tomb remains today.
The first sitting president to speak at Cooper Union’s Great Hall was Woodrow Wilson, who during a second-term campaign speech on November 2, 1916, stated, “A free nation cannot have the spirit of employees; it’s got to have the spirit of comrades and equals or it will not go forward.”
For the thousands of people who could not get into the venue, the progressive former Princeton University president and Governor of New Jersey stepped out into Cooper Square and addressed a sympathetic crowd of 20,000 in the open air, declaring that the warm reception made him feel like dedicating his life all over again to “the cause of the great mass of toilers in the country.”
The very day after Wilson’s grand speech, another man with presidential experience took the stage at Cooper Union’s Great Hall, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt. The former Commander-in-Chief castigated Wilson after receiving a ten-minute standing ovation, telling the rowdy audience that “Wilson cares nothing for the nation’s soul” and comparing the peace-loving incumbent to Presidents Buchanan and Pierce.
“If we elect Mr. Wilson,” Roosevelt said, “We have deliberately elected to show ourselves for the time being a sordid, soft and spineless nation; content to accept any and every insult.” Ouch.
After his rousing presentation at Cooper Union, former President Roosevelt made another public appearance at the Thomashefsky National Theater at 111 East Houston Street near Second Avenue, where the audience was presumably treated to further Wilson-bashing.
Roosevelt, of course, was no stranger to New York City or the Lower East Side, having grown up in a neighboring district and serving on the board of New York City Police Commissioners in the late 1890s. From his office at 300 Mulberry Street—at the very heart of the Lower East Side’s Italian immigrant district—the hard-nosed Republican made drastic changes in NYPD policies and was known to walk the beat himself to ensure his new rules were being implemented.
U.S. Secretary of War under the Roosevelt administration, William H. Taft, succeeded “Teddy” as President in 1909. In December of that year, Taft toured the working-class Lower East Side and made a public appearance at the Bowery Mission, 227 Bowery, where he expressed his appreciation to the staff and offered words of hope for its guests.
The Bowery Mission hosted another political heavyweight eleven years later, on July 15, 1920, when Franklin D. Roosevelt made a campaign stop here while touring New York in a bid for the Vice Presidency.
The only native Lower East Sider to come close to holding the presidential title is the Fourth Ward’s own Alfred E. Smith, the thick-accented Democratic Governor of New York who became the first Roman Catholic Presidential Candidate in 1928. Though he lost the election by a landslide to the more “relatable” Herbert Hoover, Smith remained a popular local public figure and prominent business leader, going on to oversee the construction of the Empire State Building in 1930/31.
President Harry S. Truman’s re-election campaign brought him to New York City on October 28, 1948, where he made three public speeches—all on the Lower East Side. His first open-air presentation took place at Union Square, the second at City Hall Park, followed by a twilight appearance at Sara D. Roosevelt Park where the President held a white cake topped with a golden Statue of Liberty while speaking of world peace.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower and wife Mamie visited the former New York City Board of Elections headquarters at 400 Broome Street to register for the 1954 Congressional election on August 17 of that year—accompanied by a helicopter, twelve-car motorcade and 110 policemen on motorcycles.
On October 27, 1960, then-Senator John F. Kennedy drove through the Lower East Side on a multi-borough campaign jaunt and in July of 1966, brother Robert F. Kennedy followed suit—touring the heart of the Lower East Side’s Puerto Rican district. As Senator Robert Kennedy rode up Clinton Street in the back of a white convertible, activists handed out small American flags and literature with headlines like, “En la tradicion de Kennedy.” The popular candidate also made a stop that day for a bite at the legendary Ratner’s Delicatessen, formerly located at 138 Delancey Street.
When First Lady Bird Johnson visited the neighborhood to dedicate a park on Avenue D on May 23, 1966, she was met with anti-war picketers holding signs with slogans that read, “Beauty si, bombs no.”
Former President Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn got down and dirty on September 3, 1984, as they and 30 volunteers spent the day in work boots and a hard hat transforming an abandoned, fire-gutted tenement building at 742 East Sixth Street into a 19-unit affordable-housing complex. The Carters returned to survey the completed project in June, 1987, receiving a plaque from the formerly homeless residents.
When Arkansas Governor William Jefferson Clinton accepted the Democratic Party nomination at Madison Square Garden on July 16, 1992, he told a national audience, “This election is about putting power back in your hands and putting government back on your side… You know, I’ve said that all across America. And whenever I do, someone comes back at me, as a young man did just this week at a town meeting at the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.”
Clinton was referring to the campaign speech he gave on the steps of the Henry Street Settlement’s Abrons Arts Center at 466 Grand Street on July 13. Apparently the institution made an impression on him, as Henry Street’s director Daniel Kronenfeld was invited to Clinton’s Presidential Inauguration.
As president, Clinton returned to the Lower East Side on May 12, 1993, to speak at Cooper Union about reducing the national deficit and has so far made two more appearances at the Great Hall, on May 23, 2006 and April 23, 2007.
On the fifth anniversary of September 11, President George W. Bush spent the morning at Engine 15/Ladder 18/Battalion 4, located at 25 Pitt Street, where he shared breakfast with firefighters, police officers and Port Authority police.
And finally, on March 27, 2008 campaigning Illinois Senator Barack Obama took the stage at Cooper Union’s Great Hall—and returned as President on April 22, 2010.
It will be interesting to see if this nearly century-and-a-half trend of political campaigning on the Lower East Side continues into the future, as gentrification gradually depletes the immigrant and unionized working-class voting blocs which attracted many politicians to the neighborhood in the first place.
Eric Ferrara is founder and director of the non-profit Lower East Side History Project, and author of several New York City history books including two new titles, Lower East Side: Then & Now & Lower East Side: Oral Histories. Ferrara has consulted numerous movie and television projects for HBO, Warner Brothers, National Geographic, History Chanel and many more.