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Lower East Side Students: It’s Time to Properly Recognize “First White House”

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George and Martha Washington's mansion on Cherry Street.  Source: New York Historical Society.
George and Martha Washington’s mansion on Cherry Street. Source: New York Historical Society.

Here’s an Election Day diversion. We thought it would be a good time to revisit a part of the Lower East Side’s presidential history this morning.

As you may or may not know, George Washington lived in a mansion on Cherry Street from the time of his inauguration in April of 1789 until the following February. For a 10 month period, the home of importer Walter Franklin served as  this country’s first White House. There’s a sad, inaccessible plaque in recognition of the landmark, which was torn down in 1856. But a group of students at P.S. 126/Manhattan Academy of Technology on Catherine Street are trying to change that.

During the past few years, we have covered their previous efforts under the auspices of a program called the Lower East Side Young Historians.  It is a curriculum devised by teachers Alfonso Guerriero, Jr. and Christopher Piccigallo to engage students in American history through the rich legacy of their own neighborhood. In the spring, two new historical plaques were unveiled on Catherine Street, after a successful campaign by the teachers and students to document the Lower East Side’s tap dancing history. The initiative was part of the New York City Parks Department’s Historic Signs Project.

The other day, we heard from Guerriero, who said the Young Historians are taking up a new project. In 1899, a plaque was placed near George Washington’s former home and office by the Mary Washington Colonial Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It acknowledges the “first presidential mansion” at 1 Cherry St. (some argue it was actually at 3 Cherry St.)

george washington plaque

washington plaque 2

washington plaque 3

For years, various organizations have unsuccessfully pushed to move the plaque, which is located in an obscure spot under the Brooklyn Bridge. If you’re looking really hard, you can spot it at Dover and Pearl streets, where it’s been largely hidden from public view since 9/11.  Guerriero told us, “there is a concrete barricade and fence that blocks anyone from noticing the plaque. Moreover, the real story is also that the conditions around the plaque are truly a travesty to our nation’s history.” He took these pictures of the area this past spring (the gate has since been opened).

Maybe a little youthful enthusiasm and resourcefulness will finally prompt city agencies to act. Guerriero explained, “I contacted the Mary Washington Colonial Chapter… and I explained what our goal is, which is to relocate the sign. We already know that the police authorities deem the location a security concern and thus the area cannot be compromised… The Mary Washington Colonial Chapter… has agreed to collaborate with us.”

The next step is to convince the city. The students plan to create a pamphlet to bring attention to the situation. It will be handed out to parents and community residents, as well as tourists.

We’ll keep you posted on their efforts.

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