Chester A. Arthur’s four-year presidency is often overlooked by historians. So too, as it turns out, is the New York City house in which Arthur was sworn in as president, and died just five years later.
Then Vice-President Arthur was in his second floor library at 123 Lexington Avenue when he learned late in the evening of September 19, 1881 that President James A. Garfield had succumbed to injuries suffered when he had been shot two months earlier. Hours later, Arthur was administered the oath of office on the first floor of his home, marking only the second presidential inauguration to take place in New York City after George Washington. Arthur would repeat the oath in the Vice President’s Office two days later.
Arthur retired from the presidency and returned to 123 Lexington Avenue in 1885 to resume his law practice. He was soon enfeebled with a chronic kidney disease, however, and died in his home the following year.
123 Lexington Avenue has been considerably altered since Arthur’s death in 1886. The original entrance, once at the second floor-level and accessible by a flight of stone stairs, has disappeared. Since 1944 an Indian grocery and deli has occupied the first two floors with the remaining three floors divided into apartments. Still, 123 Lexington Avenue remains the only surviving building in New York where a president was sworn in. The original Federal Hall, where George Washington was inaugurated in 1789, was razed in 1812.
Although the historical significance of 123 Lexington Avenue has been overlooked, it has not been completely forgotten. In 1981 a New York historical society placed a plaque at the house, recognizing Arthur’s time spent in the building before and after his presidency, and also noting that New Yorker William Randolph Hearst owned the building in 1907. The plaque still exists, and for passers-by willing to peer into a locked vestibule at the address, it offers a clue to the building’s historical importance, and just maybe, also a glimpse into an often overlooked presidential administration.