Prologue Magazine

A Prime Location in New York City

Fall 2012, Vol. 44, No. 2

By David S. Ferriero

Archivist of the United States


New York City is a city of neighborhoods. During my time as director of the New York Public Libraries, I had the opportunity to explore those neighborhoods as I visited my 91 facilities.

One of the most interesting neighborhoods is in Lower Manhattan, the Battery Park and Financial District area, where the Dutch supposedly bought Manhattan from the Native Americans and which was the heart of New Amsterdam. Today, on the site of Fort Amsterdam sits the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House.

Now this Custom House will be the home of one the National Archives' regional archives—the National Archives at New York City. And it's a good example of the extensive collections of records we hold in all our regional archives.

Some of the most fascinating records of our history are housed in the New York City archives: passenger lists of arrivals at nearby Ellis Island and other points of entry for immigrants, major federal districts court cases, and records from World War I, Puerto Rico, the Civil War era, and the U.S. Customs Service.

For example, we have Albert Einstein's Declaration of Intention to become a U.S. citizen from 1940 and Susan B. Anthony's indictment for illegally voting in 1872. And there's a photograph of the young assistant secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, at Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1914, walking the keel and inspecting the construction of a battleship that would become the USS Arizona.

Gotham would not be complete without something from its protector, Batman, so we have the first Batman comic book, tucked away in the records of the federal district courts.

The Custom House is a historic location, very visible and easy to find. It is located near Bowling Green, Manhattan's oldest park near the foot of Broadway, once a Native American trading trail and now one of America's most fabled streets.

It's just a few blocks from the ferries to Liberty Island, home of the Statue of Liberty, and Ellis Island, where millions of immigrants first set foot on American soil. And for many years, it was the main port of entry for trade and the collection point for tariffs, the nation's principal source of income until the 16th Amendment established the income tax in 1913.

The building itself was designed in the Beaux-Arts style by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the Woolworth Building in New York and the U.S. Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill in Washington. Just like our National Archives Building in Washington, the Custom House has a rotunda on the second floor, and 16 murals depict the entry of ships into the Port of New York and famous European explorers of the American continent.

We will share the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, named for our first secretary of the Treasury and one of our Founding Fathers, with the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

We will bring to the building the full range of activities that we offer at other archives in Washington and around the country—research, education, exhibits, and a wide range of public programs. The opening exhibit, "The World's Port: Through Documents of the National Archives,"e; is running through November 25, 2012.

The move to the Custom House was the result of hard work on the part of our staff in New York City. They are moving out of quarters high up in a nondescript building on Varick Street in Greenwich Village to a very exciting location. They will help raise our profile in one of the most important cities in the world and introduce ourselves to New Yorkers who didn't know we've been there all these years.

We at the Archives are all thrilled about the move to this new, more visible, more accessible location for the Archives—and all the contributions it can make to New York City.

I look forward to forging partnerships with New York City's many institutions that have an impact not only on the cultural world of New York City but of the entire nation.

And I believe our new home in the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House will draw more citizens to the Archives to learn more about their democracy. And that's really important.


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Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.