Fraunces Tavern, a very old inn, is one of our city's better known historical sites and is cited on nearly every touristy list of stuff to do downtown. But the funny thing is that nobody I knew had ever been there, or had a clue what to really expect on a visit. Was it good only for junior history buffs? Was it a ho hum bore? With my kids in tow I set out to find out what the real deal was about this famous but little-visited site, and we all were pleasantly surprised, even my toddler. Read on for the straight scoop on this homey hangout for our founding fathers.
The Fraunces Tavern Museum (as it is called) is a worthy way to spend around 45 minutes with just about any child who knows who George Washington is and a little bit about the American Revolution, say a basic awareness that we won our independence as a country by fighting the British. The rest is all explained to you and yours in a brief, entertaining, and simply worded video that begins your self-guided tour. You'll hear all about the site you're about to see plus some amusing anecdotes to boot. For example, women weren’t allowed to socialize with the gentlemen downstairs where they could be seen but were welcome to share tables with the fellers upstairs, away from the public eye, where it wasn't considered un-ladylike. Imagine!
The Tavern, built in 1719 as a private home and soon-after acquired by West Indian innkeeper Samuel Fraunces, is most famous for being the place where General Washington bade a tearful goodbye to his officers, whose loyal services were no longer needed since we'd won our independence. General George also hosted an important victory banquet at the Tavern when the war was first won (and we yanks re-occupied our city). And Fraunces Tavern was the de-facto home of the Sons of Liberty, who planned the American Revolution, so it is indeed a historically significant place, not just your run-of-the-mill "George slept here" kind of joint.
Natch, you get to see The Long Room, the very room where Washington famously dismissed his dear officers, tables all set up for food, drink, and amusements of the day like backgammon and cards. My kids were curious about the decorative details and the rustic pewter tableware.
Because Fraunces Tavern was a veritable cauldron of ideas intellectual and revolutionary, literally from its inception and long after we gained our independence, historical luminaries (like Alexander Hamilton) often gathered there in rooms like The Clinton Room. Named after George Clinton, the first Governor of New York (and 2-time Vice President), it’s well worth a gander. Junior history buffs will particularly enjoy the curious French-commissioned wallpaper entitled La Guerre de l’Independence Americaine (The War of American Independence), in which important historical sites and events are oddly juxtaposed with timelines and geography brazenly fudged.
Be sure to also check out The Flag Room festooned with the early flags of our nation. If you think the only flag we had was Betsy Ross's famous flyer, think again. Our flag underwent some interesting and odd incarnations before the classic stars and stripes—there’s even one adorned with a mini British flag (regrettable, I’m sure). My little one particularly adored this festive room as there are also colorful troop flags and state flags with animals and unusual symbols.
Other rooms in the adjacent buildings now joined to the Tavern have plenty of historical artifacts and documents that would, honestly, be of greatest interest to older children. However we all enjoyed taking in the one-room exhibit of paintings entitled "Revolution and the City" (ongoing through January 2011) that included some rockin' revolutionary women in action (Molly Pitcher and others less famous), Washington's children at home, and even some rarely depicted scenes of colonial family life during the war. Plus there are more than a few painted renditions of George's famous farewell-to-the-troops-at-the-Tavern scene which are more interesting together than singly, as it's fun to see how different artists imagined the private get-together.
This short but sweet museum visit also gives parents a nice opportunity to discuss the importance of New York in the early days of the new republic. This city served as our nation's first capitol before George and Congress settled in D.C., and after Washington was inaugurated as President, Fraunces Tavern itself even housed our first departments of Foreign Affairs, Treasury, and War.
The Fraunces Tavern Museum isn't a make-it-a-day destination in and of itself but it's a completely worthwhile visit if you're downtown and exploring another fun venue like the Imagination Playground, the South Street Seaport (or the Seaport Museum), or The Skyscraper Museum. So take in a little bit of history and make your visit part of a fun day in Lower Manhattan. For more fun things to do in the area, check out our post about 5 museums you've never heard of in lower Manhattan.
Everything you want to see is one flight up narrow stairs and the rooms are narrow too, so best to leave the stroller at home if possible (though there is wheelchair access via an annex).
Note that the last couple minutes of the tour video focuses on the 911 tragedy and the downtown community's supportive response, so if you'd rather shield your kids from that, skip the end.
Fraunces Tavern Museum
54 Pearl Street, Manhattan
Hours are Monday – Saturday noon – 5pm, Closed Sundays. Admission is free to children age 6, $4 for children ages 6-18 and $7 for adults.