I Visited the Oldest Building in Manhattan

Last week, I mentioned that part of my summer to-do list involves visiting the oldest building in each of New York City’s five boroughs. Well, I’m already 1/5 of the way to achieving my goal and wanted to share my experience at the first stop: Manhattan’s Fraunces Tavern.

Two things you should know: I really love history, and I love New York. Not in that hokey, modern t-shirt slogan way; I love the story of a city that’s deceptively old and rich in history. (By American standards, Euro friends; please humor us.)

Fraunces Tavern’s claim to be the oldest building in Manhattan is a point of contention; in the centuries since its heyday it has been so extensively damaged and renovated that almost none of the original structure remains. However, I accepted the spirit of the location as Manhattan’s oldest, and I couldn’t resist the chance to visit the tavern and its comprehensive museum. While you may not have heard of the building itself, you should know it as the location of George Washington’s farewell dinner with his men at the end of the Revolutionary War.

I visited the Tavern and museum (dragging Mr. McDoogal along with me) on a windy, rainy, generally unpleasant Sunday. As a result, the museum was nearly empty and we had the exclusive attention of our Bronx-born tour guide. The museum houses its share of important artifacts, including the tail from the statue of King George II that was knocked down in Bowling Green park by exuberant Americans on July 9, 1776 after they heard the newly-drafted Declaration of Independence read aloud. However, much of the story of Fraunces Tavern is told via paintings, engravings and wonderful old maps. The breadth of information from the exhibits and our guide combined perfectly with that unique sense of gravity one only feels in an old, historically-significant place.

Did you even know, for example, that for nearly 100 years, Evacuation Day was a huge celebration in the city of New York? Every year, the city would celebrate the anniversary of the day, November 25, 1783, the last British troops left the U.S. after the end of the Revolutionary War. So, why haven’t you heard of it? We celebrate the Fourth of July, the day we signed the Declaration of Independence, as our Independence Day. But that was in the middle of the Revolutionary War, not the end. Doesn’t Evacuation Day seem more significant, or at least significantly more badass than the day we sent what was essentially a strongly-worded letter to our British oppressors?

Two factors contributed to the undoing of Evacuation Day as a major holiday. The first may be obvious if you consider the date; in 1863 Abraham Lincoln made the official proclamation to declare Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday of November, which ended up crowding out Evacuation Day. Second, as the 20th century progressed, and by World War I in particular, Britain had become an American ally. It would have been increasingly awkward to continue celebrating the day we kicked their well-dressed rumps out of New York.

After our tour of the museum (and an obligatory stop in the ground-level pub), we spent a little time on that quiet, rainy day walking around the mostly-deserted streets surrounding Fraunces Tavern. There’s a small cluster of blocks lined with old buildings that are a rare glimpse of what the layout of old lower Manhattan was like. The architects of a large building across the street went through the trouble of preserving the foundation walls and well of a long-gone tavern that can still be seen through clear panels in the sidewalk. In a city that’s obsessed with progress, it’s nice to spend an afternoon remembering how many important things happened here; in one of the few places you can still see the history with your own eyes.

Next up: the outer boroughs. I might check out the oldest building in my native Queens next, but I’m still deciding. I picked the easiest (subway-accessible) stop first, so we’ll see how hard it is to actually get to any of these places.

Photo: Getty

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