George Washington never slept in this Bowling Green mansion built for him

It was called Government House—and despite its stodgy name, it was elegant and beautiful.

The Georgian-style, two-story stunner sat at the foot of Broadway with New York Harbor behind it and Bowling Green in front. Begun in either 1789 or 1790 on the former site of Fort Amsterdam, the elevated mansion looked upon New York’s most elegant neighborhood, surrounded by the fine houses and churches of the rich.

But this premier residence with a portico and carvings of the arms of the state wasn’t designed for any old member of Gotham’s elite. New York in 1789 was the capital of the new United States. And city fathers intended Government House to be the official home of all US presidents.

The immediate hope was that George Washington, sworn in as the first commander in chief on April 30 of that year, would move into Government House. After his inauguration, Washington lived in a borrowed mansion at One Cherry Street. Then in February 1790, President Washington made the Macomb mansion at 39 Broadway opposite Bowling Green his residence.

Unfortunately for New York, the city’s stint as the capital of the US was about to be cut short. Later in 1790, temporary capital status went to Philadelphia while a new capital between Maryland and Virginia could be built. Washington spent the rest of his presidency in Philly, never relocating the Government House or the White House.

Government House didn’t stay empty though. New York City was still the capital of New York State, and the mansion became the official residence of state governors like DeWitt Clinton and John Jay. But in 1797, Albany became the state capital, and Government House became the Custom House from 1799 to 1815.

In 1815, Government House met its end—some sources say the city simply dismantled it, another attributes its demise to a fire. Private residences were built on the site, but as the city’s elite decamped to more fashionable neighborhoods, the Bowling Green area became a commercial zone.

In 1907, the site became the home of the Alexander Hamilton Custom House—and today, that building houses the National Museum of the American Indian. A plaque marking Government House was put up in 1890 by the Holland Society of New York, which I didn’t find, but Wikipedia has it.

[Images: Wikipedia; NYPL]

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8 Responses to “George Washington never slept in this Bowling Green mansion built for him”

  1. Larry Gertner Says:

    The Holland Society is inside the building in the vicinity of the rotunda and its gorgeous WPA murals. I think its on the left side wall at its entrance.

  2. vshpigel Says:

    Thank you for the post!
    The plaque is on the corner of One Broadway

  3. Ricky Says:

    This building is also where I went to renew my passport in hopes of being able to travel internationally again someday.

  4. VirginiaLB Says:

    Very appropriate post for George Washington’s Birthday today! I think it was a school holiday when I was growing up in New York and eating cherry pie was part of the celebration.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yep, happy birthday George Washington! His presence in New York City has a general and a president is worth honoring.

  5. ironrailsironweights Says:

    In 1800, the second president John Adams moved into the White House.
    Trivis: although eight presidents died in office, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor were the only two to die physically inside the White House.


  6. velovixen Says:

    Sadly ironic, isn’t it, that the Museum of the American Indian is located in the Customs House?

    What if New York had remained the capital of the United States, or even New York State?

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