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Symbolic site for Congress to meet

Federal Hall National Memorial
Federal Hall National Memorial  

(CNN) -- There could be few more symbolic sites for Friday's commemorative meeting of Congress in honor of September 11 than Federal Hall in lower Manhattan.

Not only is the building just a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center where more than 2,800 people died, it stands on the site where the first Congress under the Constitution convened in 1789.

The original Federal Hall at the junction of Broad and Wall streets was the City Hall of New York. Congress under the Articles of Confederation had been meeting there since 1784.

After the Constitution was ratified in 1788, the building was remodeled by Pierre L'Enfant in time for the 1789 inauguration of George Washington as first president and for Congress to move in.

Local citizens provided the funds for the remodeling. The hope of the backers was that a suitable building would inspire Congress to make New York the permanent capital. When costs ran to double the initial estimates, the results were so popular that few complained.

It was the first building in America designed to exalt the national spirit, in what would become known as the Federal style. An immense American eagle was emblazoned across the front entrance. Stars and laurel wreaths were used as a decorative motif inside and out.

The House of Representatives met on the ground floor. The Senate met on the floor above and became known as the "upper chamber," as it is still called today.

Congress' meeting sites from 1790 to today 

But New York was not a popular choice as a capital for the republic and Congress stayed there only about a year and a half.

It was supposed to convene in March 1789, but because it took so long in those days to get to New York from as far away as western Pennsylvania and Georgia, it wasn't until April that enough members were on hand to do business.

That was a big reason for moving the capital to Philadelphia in 1790, where it stayed until the new District of Columbia that had been built from scratch in the tobacco fields of Maryland was ready for occupancy in 1800.

The original Federal Hall building was demolished in 1812 and the land sold. About 40 years later the government bought the land back and built the present building.

It was a Customs House, then a Federal Reserve Bank. It is now called Federal Hall National Memorial, even though it is not the original building.

But its links to the birth of the nation and its proximity to the site of the WTC attacks make it an ideal choice for only the second ceremonial meeting of Congress outside Washington since 1800.

The other time was in 1987 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Great Compromise that created the House of Representatives and the Senate during the Constitutional Convention in 1787.




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