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New York City and The American President: A Brief History
All Articles > New York City and The American President: A Brief History

New York City and The American President: A Brief History

New York City and The American President: A Brief History


February 24, 2017 | By Dan Bamberger & Aaron Gordon


Happy President’s Day! For those who had the day off, we hope you enjoyed your long weekend. For those who didn’t, we hope you had time to reflect on the value of democracy. But no matter what camp you fall into, we hope you enjoy this special bonus Bamberger Report, in which we take a detour into American presidents and the rich history the office holds with this great city of ours.

Daniel Huntington's The Republican Court: Lady Washington's Reception Day depicts a scene in the Alexander Macomb House, which served as George and Martha Washington's NYC home from February 23 to August 30, 1790.

New York City. As a leading contender for the title of Capital of the Western World in finance, entertainment, law, education and almost any other global field you can think of, it’s no surprise that many of the men who went on to lead to our country either formed themselves here or made it a base of operations in their post-White House years.

In the grand scope of American history, Donald Trump– born and raised in Jamaica, Queens and former unofficial emperor of Manhattan luxury real estate– is only the most recent chapter in a deep and important political relationship between New York City and the U.S. government that dates back to the very founding of the country, during its brief time as the nation’s capital.

Below, a brief history of presidents in New York– mostly Manhattan, if we’re being honest– with a small handful of stories and anecdotes from their time here.


George Washington

With Washington, D.C. not much more than a coastal mid-Atlantic swamp at the end of the 18th century, President Washington took up residence in New York from his inauguration in April 1789 until 1790, when the national government moved to Philadelphia before heading south one final time.

The Washington family changed homes twice during their tenure in Manhattan, first living in a red-brick home on the corner of Pearl and Cherry Street owned by attorney Samuel Osgood. Costing a whopping (for the time) $845 a year, maintained by a staff of 20, and fitted with an early version of the Oval Office, President Washington moved his family to the more spacious Alexander Macomb House in Bowling Green area of the island by February 1790. The four-story home also boasted of commanding views of the Hudson River– but nonetheless, the first family had skipped town by the end of that summer.

Neither One Cherry Street nor 39 Broadway– the address of Washington’s second home– have survived the centuries. One Cherry was demolished sixty years later during a bout of city development that coincided with its location in the heart of the city’s notoriously crime-ridden Fourth Ward. The entire section of the street was done away with entirely to make way for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge a decade later. The Macomb House was demolished in 1940.

123 Lexington Avenue served as Chester A. Arthur's residence for much of his adult life, both before and after he served as Vice President and then as President in Washington D.C. It was in this building that Arthur took the presidential oath of office after the death of James Garfield on September 19, 1881.

The Fun Fact Historical Footnote: Chester A. Arthur

This section may be useful info to keep on hand during trivia night at your local Murray Hill bar.

Though our 21st president may be more publicly remembered today for his spectacular mutton chop moustache than for any policy passed during his tenure (1881-85, in case you’re wondering), President Chester A. Arthur was a New Yorker through and through. After coming to the city as a young man to practice law, Arthur spent most of his adulthood living at 123 Lexington Avenue, now known as the Chester A. Arthur House, which also happened to be a convenient short walk away from his in-laws’ place overlooking Gramercy Park.

Arthur’s stint in the Civil War was soon followed by a foray into national politics as James Garfield’s Vice President, but Garfield’s assassination in August 1881 meant he had to make a quick move to D.C. He was back in New York, however, a few years later after losing a bid for re-election, and dead by 1886.

The Roosevelts: The Kennedys of New York?

New York City at the onset of the twentieth century was finally coming head to head with the traits that would continue to shape it over the next one hundred plus years: extreme wealth alongside cramped poverty, industry intermingled with fast-paced business deals, factory pollution alongside the occasional art movement.

And, perhaps not coincidentally, it fell upon the arms of a New Yorker to lead the United States as a whole into this new century. Theodore Roosevelt, the only president born within city borders until the Queensite Trump, spent most of his bed-ridden childhood in his family’s town house at 28 East 20th Street. The Roosevelts eventually moved north to West 57th Street, and the house of Teddy’s formative years was destroyed just three years before his death in 1916. But in the years following his death, the Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association hired Theodate Pope Riddle to build a replica of the house right next door, now a museum devoted to exploring Teddy’s life and adventures.

Which brings us to Teddy’s cousin, Franklin, and their other cousin and Franklin’s wife, Eleanor. They spent the early years of their marriage, well before Franklin’s rise to power, living in the heart of Murray Hill at 125 East 36th Street (a morning run past the row of townhouses is well worth your time). They then lived next door to Franklin’s mother, Sara, at 49 East 65th Street, until Sara’s death in 1941, at which point then-president Roosevelt sold the home to the nearby Hunter College.

Rededicated in 1923, the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site is a recreation of the president's childhood home. It was donated to the National Park Service in 1963, and is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today it serves as a museum dedicated to the president's life and work.

The Clintons’ New Millennium

It’s easy to forget that in the years following the Lewinsky scandal and preceding Trump’s America, both Bill and Hillary Clinton left their decades in Arkansas and Washington behind and chose instead to cement their bond with Manhattanites. While the Clinton’s maintained their residential home up north in Chappaqua, New York, the couple invested heavily in city real estate to house the offices of the nonprofit Clinton Foundation, with Bill opening operations at 55 125th Street in Harlem steps away from the Apollo Theater all the way back in 2001.

At the time, Clinton was quoted as saying the following to the thousands of well-wishers who greeted him upon his arrival to the neighborhood:

“Harlem always struck me as a place that was human and alive, where there was a rhythm to life and a song in the heart, where no matter how bad it was, people held up their heads and went on, and where, when things got good, people were grateful and cared about their neighbors.

There must’ve been some truth to his words, for while the Clinton Foundation eventually decamped to FiDi in search of lower rents for larger spaces in 2011, the former president renewed a lease to keep private offices on the top floor of the Harlem building, which remain functional to this day.


Barack Obama: The College Years

Between his Hawai’ian upbringing, brief stint in California’s Occidental College and allegiance to the Chicago White Sox, we wouldn’t blame if you forgot that Barack Obama spent his final college years and early adulthood all the way uptown.

Obama first lived in Morningside Heights- conveniently close to his alma mater, Columbia University- where he paid $180 a month in rent alongside a roommate. In case you needed a quick reminder on how much real estate has changed in Manhattan since the early 1980s, that same apartment cost $2300 a month in the fall of 2016.

Barack Obama, photographed here in Central Park, during his time as an undergraduate at Columbia University.

But the future leader of the free world soon packed up and made the move across the park to the Upper East Side to 339 East 94th Street. Despite the neighborhood’s swanky reputation, Obama did not paint the apartment in a pleasant light in his memoir, “Dreams of My Father”:

“It was an uninviting block, treeless and barren, lined with soot-colored walk-ups that cast heavy shadows for most of the day. The apartment was small, with slanting floors and irregular heat and a buzzer downstairs that didn’t work, so that visitors had to call ahead from a pay phone at the corner gas station, where a black Doberman the size of a wolf paced through the night in vigilant patrol, its jaws clamped around an empty beer bottle.”

So it’s not surprising to us that Obama moved again, this time back across the park to 662 West 114th Street, which at one time was property of the legendary movie industry tycoon Cecile B. DeMille. But there was no Hollywood Ending between Obama and our fair city, and the young college graduate left his room in the summer of 1985 to set up his now iconic roots in Chicago.

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