For a man who died in a duel over 200 years ago, Alexander Hamilton seems remarkably alive. First, of course, there’s the groundbreaking musical Hamilton, currently dominating Broadway. Then there’s the ongoing debate over which woman should replace Alexander Hamilton as the face of the 10-dollar bill.
I couldn’t get into ‘Hamilton’ until the year 2018, according to the smug ticket seller at the Richard Rodgers Theater. But I could do the next best thing. I could go see the house he built.
Alexander Hamilton was the first US Secretary of the Treasury. In 1804, he came out on the short side of the most famous duel in US history, killed by one-time friend and supporter Aaron Burr. Two years prior to this unfortunate incident, Hamilton’s home, The, was completed. The design and construction was a passion of Hamilton’s and resided on part of his 32-acre estate in Upper Manhattan.
At first glance, it seems an odd place to find a home by one of America’s most genteel founding fathers. Harlem has the reputation of being one of the New York’s roughest areas, with streets you don’t necessarily want to explore after dark. While this may have been true late last century, as you move west you’ll also find it has some of the most gorgeous brownstone apartments and park areas anywhere on the east coast. Alexander Hamilton owned 32 acres of the most picturesque part of Harlem and it was here he built The Grange.
The first thing that captures my eye is that, like most homes built in the early 1800s, The Grange is diminutive in comparison to similar homes of today. It’s three floors high, but the rooms are tiny. I had to navigate a cramped, twisting staircase to climb from one floor to another. Led by cheerful tour guide Kayley, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Hamilton, I got to see where the great man ate, where he studied, where he wrote and where his daughter played the piano. Unfortunately, the top floor was deemed unsafe by the Fire Department, so we were not allowed to see where he and his wife Elizabeth slept.
Given the history of the house, however, and seeing how it was moved not once, but twice, it was a miracle we had the chance to see it at all.
In 1889, the Grange was marked for destruction so that new streets could be completed to accommodate the growing Manhattan street grid. Citizens objected, demanding that this most visible remembrance of the Hamilton legacy should instead be preserved, as part of America’s brief but vibrant history. It was boutght by St Luke’s Episcophal Church and with the aid of a few horses and wagons the entire house (minus some porches left behind) was transported just a short distance away to 287 Convent Avenue. In 1962, it came into aegis of the National Park Service, where it achieved museum status.
The problem was that as Manhattan grew, The Grange shrunk, at least in terms of visibility. Where it once stood alone and proud, it soon became crammed in between an apartment building and a massive church, both of which dwarfed the structure.
In 2006, Congress decided that to increase the house’s stature and prominence it should be moved again, this time to nearby St Nicholas Park. This was easier said than done, however. Taking it apart and transporting it piece by piece was obviously impossible. The wooden frame would fall apart. (Even as it was, I was cautioned not to lean too heavily on the walls.) Thus it was decided that the Hamilton Grange needed to be moved exactly as it was, intact, as one unit. This required the use of hydraulic jacks to lift the structure 35ft in the air, sliding it 50ft on rails over the existing church, then lowering it back down to the ground on wheels, where it would be rolled down the street to its current location in St Nicholas Park.
I spoke with Lucretia Johnson, a longtime resident. She was there on that fateful day. “I remember watching them lifting it over that huge church and then wondering how in the name of the Lord they were going to navigate those tiny streets without it breaking apart. But they did it!”
I asked Kayley whether or not the success of the hit musical had done anything for the popularity of the Hamilton Grange National Memorial museum. “We’ve seen attendance to the site go up by more than 200%!” she beamed.