Volume 19 • Issue 5 | June 16 - 22, 2006

New try for reminder of America’s first ‘White House’

By Ronda Kaysen

When Peter Dans was a boy during World War II he often walked with his Italian grandmother to the Pine St. post office to mail packages overseas, trekking up Cherry St. and resting beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. While sitting in the shade of the Manhattan anchorage, he and his grandmother, a history buff, often read the brass plaque there. The plaque commemorated George Washington’s first presidential home, which once stood at 1 Cherry St., near where the Brooklyn Bridge anchorage now stands. In essence, the only reminder of America’s first presidential palace was reduced to a small plaque affixed to the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Cherry St. was a hill, so if you think of a grandmother carrying packages, it was a good place to stop and I used to read the plaque,” he told Downtown Express. “It was kind of like a ritual.”

Now, even that tarnished, fading marker of United States history has been rendered invisible—and mostly forgotten—by steelwork reinforcing the bridge.

The plaque, placed there in 1899 by the Daughters of the American Revolution, commemorates Washington’s first presidential home at 1 Cherry St., where he lived from April 1789 until February 1790. Most of Cherry St. was razed in the mid 19th century to make way for the Brooklyn Bridge. Washington’s home might have vanished even before that.

Dans, a semi-retired John Hopkins professor living in Maryland, had let the George Washington plaque drift into the background of his childhood memories until he began doing research on his old neighborhood for a book he is writing with photographer Rebecca Lepkoff called “Life on the Lower East Side.”

The neighborhood where Dans spent his early childhood was obliterated in the 1950s when the Alfred E. Smith Houses were erected. Dans, now 68, was displaced from his first childhood home, an 1811 structure on Water St., to make way for the Smith houses, only to be moved again two years later when his 1820s home on Madison St. faced the same fate. His book, which will be released in October, captures a vanished slice of the Lower East Side in old photographs and essays.

The plaque is one sliver of his old neighborhood that could be restored. “I remembered that plaque and couldn’t find it,” he said. “This is a part of America that we ought to not forget.”

To a certain extent, it has been forgotten. In his effort to bring attention to the neglected brass marker, Dans reached out to the Daughters of the American Revolution, the organization that erected it in 1899, but had little luck. “They have lots of nice plaques. They can’t keep track of them all,” he said.

In 1998, when the city reinforced the Brooklyn Bridge, cutting off access to the plaque, Community Board 1 passed a resolution calling for the plaque to be moved. But the issue was soon dropped. “I don’t remember ever getting a response from D.O.T. — although that’s not unusual,” said C.B. 1 district manager Paul Goldstein of the Dept. of Transportation, the agency responsible for moving the plaque. “We never pursued it further.”

Gary Fagin, a longtime Seaport resident and a former C.B. 1 member who had chaired the Seaport Committee at the time the resolution was passed, steered the 1998 effort to make the plaque more visible. “I did a lot of research on it and then 9/11 happened and then all of that area got fenced office and then the whole issue became moot and then I left the community board and dropped the ball on that,” he said.

Dans contacted Fagin recently, reviving the issue. Fagin suggested moving the plaque to Fishbridge Garden, a park on Dover St., or erecting a new, more visible, plaque so passersby would be aware of the history in their midst. On Tuesday night, C.B. 1 members broached the issue for the first time in nearly a decade, agreeing to pursue it once more. “Let’s move it somewhere where it’s more visible,” said board member Linda Roche at the Seaport and Civic Center Committee meeting.

Fagin suspects the plaque’s plight could garner some serious attention—it did when he first broached the topic in 1998. “Everybody was gung ho,” he recalled. “You find something like that hidden away in your neighborhood and everybody wants to memorialize it.”



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