NYT gives unflattering review of renovated Federal Hall (NYC)

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It is somewhat eerie when everything about a place declares that it is a center, but there is nothing for it to be the center of. We sense this in the cavernously grand railway terminals of once-thriving cities, in the government buildings of once-great empires, and, on a modest scale, in the newly renovated Federal Hall National Memorial, which this week became home to the new Federal Hall Visitor Center.

The place itself — at 26 Wall Street, opposite the New York Stock Exchange in Lower Manhattan — still has the aura of historical centrality. George Washington was inaugurated above these steps’ ancestors; Congress met at this location before moving to Philadelphia; City Hall was once here. And after its opening in 1842, the current Greek Revival building was the New York Customs House — which at the time made it central to the nation’s economy.

But by 1955, when the hall was taken over by the National Park Service, it had become a handsome antique, a memorial museum without much presence. After a $16.5 million restoration financed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the wake of damage from the 9/11 terrorist attack, its function still seems unclear, except for one thing: it is a reminder of what a center was once like.

So it is easy to imagine how the National Park Service got its idea: let Federal Hall become a center again, but one for tourists and New Yorkers interested in the Park Service’s New York sites, from the Gateway National Recreation Area in lower New York Bay to Hamilton Grange in Harlem, where Alexander Hamilton lived before his death in a duel....

The center’s exhibition, titled “The Gateway to America: Discover New York Harbor” and contributed pro bono by the designer David Rockwell and the Rockwell Group, is built around six thematic wall displays of photos, images and objects, highlighting the Park Service, Federal Hall and New York’s commerce, ecology, military installations and ethnic populations. It is meant to be a flip book of the city, with a nod to its varied constituencies. But it is marred by peculiarities.

The first display, for example, is a map of the harbor with the Park Service’s sites featured. “After your visit to Federal Hall,” a promotional panel says, “come away knowing more about the historic and natural legacy, as well as the future, of New York Harbor.” But nearby, among a series of protruding screens, is an image of waterfalls from Ohio’s Cuyahoga Valley National Park....

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