President Chester A. Arthur Re-Examined

Sunday, September 10, 2017

By: Nancy Idaka Sheran

President Chester A. Arthur Re-Examined

President Chester A. Arthur, who was a long time resident of the area just south of Murray Hill, may have been given an undeserved “bad rap” by the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the New York City Council. Last year, his townhouse at 123 Lexington Avenue (near 28th Street) was rejected for landmark designation by the Commission. The LPC stated that it has been too greatly altered, and therefore lacks architectural significance. In addition, the City Council passed a resolution implying that Arthur was responsible for a discriminatory immigration bill: Council Resolution 1457-2017 “proclaiming May 6th, the 135th anniversary of President Chester Arthur signing the Chinese Exclusion Act, as a Day of Inclusion in recognition of the harm caused by racially discriminatory immigration measures and to honor the contributions of all immigrants and refugees who have enriched our communities.” The Chinese Exclusion Act was a federal law passed on May 6, 1882, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers. As president, Arthur vetoed the Senate bill preceding the Chinese Exclusion act of 1882, but both houses of Congress passed a revised version by over 2/3 which is veto proof, and, thus, Arthur did not have a choice in signing this bill into law.

Arthur also called for civil service reform, and created the Civil Service Commission to promote government appointments based on merit.

Arthur was, in many ways a fighter for social justice and racial equality. As a 24-year old lawyer, in 1855 he successfully represented Elizabeth Jennings Graham, a black woman who had been denied a seat on a Manhattan streetcar due to her race. The case led to the desegregation of public transportation in New York City. Arthur was also involved in the “Lemmon Slave Case” in which the New York Supreme Court ruled in 1860 that slaves being transferred to a slave state through New York would be freed. During this time, Arthur joined the Republican Party, which was established by anti-slavery activists in 1854.

123 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY (ground floor occupied by Kalustyan's Specialty Foods, 2017)
The National Parks Service saw fit to designate his five-story brownstone on Lexington Avenue a National Historic Landmark. He lived there for most of his adult life. After the assassination of President James Garfield, Vice President Arthur took the oath of office as the 21st president of the United States in a private ceremony at his New York City home. By the end of his single term, Arthur was in poor health and retired to his New York City home and died there two years later.

Chester A. Arthur has not been recognized enough for the good things he did for this country, and while the NYC Council is right about honoring the contributions of immigrants and refugees, they are unfairly holding Arthur responsible for a bill he did not agree with and which he was forced to sign into law. In addition, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission would do well to reconsider landmark status for Arthur’s home on Lexington Avenue. Although the building has been altered, it can be a cultural landmark to commemorate a President who worked to desegregate New York City. It currently is a wonderful example of how a building can be successfully re-purposed by immigrants after President Arthur’s time.


(top) President Chester A. Arthur







H.R. 5804