Untapped Cities Insiders, a members-only club offering free off-limits experiences and other perks, launched in March and members attended the first event last week, going behind the scenes in New York City’s City Hall. The tour was led, as a special treat, by Mary Beth Betts, manager of the City Hall tour program with the Public Design Commission and former New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission Director of Research. She tells us, when she’s not scheduling tours, she has the “great privilege of getting to do research on City Hall history.” If you have a question about City Hall’s history, Mary Beth is your best bet (no pun intended)!

As Betts tells us, “Every indication is that it’s pride not necessity” that led to the creation of the third City Hall, to rival the buildings that were being built in Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital. As a result, there are many unique engineering and creative feats in the building, along with plenty of fun facts. Here is what we learned on this visit, where we got to go inside the Governor’s Room as well as see a City Council in session.

1. You Used to Be Able to Visit the Cupola of City Hall

Designed by John McComb Jr. and Joseph F. Mangin, City Hall opened in 1812. According to Mary Beth Betts, the public used to be able visit the cupola of City Hall for a small fee but today only the people who clean the clock and raise the flag go up there. In the 1849 book Sketches on a Tour Through the Northern and Eastern States, the Canadas and Nova Scotia, J.C. Myers writes of City Hall, “From the cupola, there is a beautiful view of the city…With the aid of a telescope, you can see far over the surrounding country, and far up Long Island Sound.” 

Originally also, according to Alfred Norton’s Norton’s Handbook of New York City from 1859, a man was stationed in the upper part of the cupola “to give alarm in case of fire by ringing the big bell,” which weighed 10,000 pounds.

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