Thursday, October 28, 2010

Alexander Hamilton's 1802 "The Grange"

photo NYPL Collection

In 1800, a year after John McComb, Jr. designed Archibald Gracie’s country house – which would become known in the 20th Century as Gracie Mansion, the official residence of the Mayor of New York – and three years before he received the commission for New York’s City Hall, the architect was hired by Alexander Hamilton to design his country estate.

That summer Hamilton had purchased land eight miles north of the city where he would erect the first house he owned; an undertaking he called “my sweet project.” He chose a site near the estate of his friend, Gouverneur Morris, with astonishing uninterrupted views of the Hudson and Harlem Rivers; roughly where 143rd Street and Convent Avenue is today.

print from the NYPL Collection

McComb produced for Hamilton an elegant two-story frame Federal residence with columned porches on all sides to catch the summer breezes. Completed in 1802 Hamilton named the eighteen-room mansion “the Grange,” after his ancestral home in Scotland.

Alexander Hamilton lived in the Grange only two years with his wife, the former Elizabeth Schuyler, their eight children and his mother, Rachel Faucett Lavien. On July 11, 1804 he died in the infamous duel with Aaron Burr.

The Hamilton family lived on in the house for another three decades after which various families owned it as the Harlem neighborhood rapidly grew. In 1889 the Greenwich Village parish of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church purchased land that included the Grange as it anticipated its northward relocation. By now the area was becoming heavily populated and as city street construction commenced, the house occupied a site directly in the path of 143rd Street. The church moved the building 350 feet southeast to 287 Convent Avenue, where it was used for services while a permanent structure was planned.

John McComb’s elegant porches, the cornice and roof balustrade were stripped off. The broad entrance steps were removed, the imposing entranceway was boarded shut and an entry was cut into the side, which now faced the street.

The Grange, sitting sideways, with the new St. Luke's Episcopal Church encroaching -- photo NYPL Collection
The parish began construction of its new church in 1892. When the attractive Romanesque church was completed in 1895 it came within feet of the Grange. A few decades later a six-story apartment building rose on the opposite side, cramping Hamilton’s house between. The once-elegant residence which had sat among 32 acres of lawns and gardens was unrecognizable in its claustrophobic setting.

The Grange, squeezed in between its new neighbors -- photo NYPL Collection

At a time when historic homes and buildings were given little importance, the Grange began attracting some attention. On May 6, 1908 an act authorizing the City of New York to purchase the mansion and move it “to a site in St. Nicholas Park, formerly constituting a part of the Alexander Hamilton farm” was passed by the State Legislature.

When the city failed to act, a frustrated read wrote to the editor of The New York Times on October 9, 1913, “For some reason there is a halt, either from indifference of overwhelming politics.”

“The Grange,” the writer continued, “…was built by Alexander Hamilton from timber grown on the Albany estate of his father-in-law, General Philip Schuyler. It is of white oak and hand hewn. From the porch steps of this house Hamilton went for the last time to fight the duel with Aaron Burr on the west shore of the Hudson River.”

Despite the push by the State and public outcry, Hamilton’s Grange sat squashed and unrestored. In October of 1929, The New York Times criticized city authorities “for alleged indifference in the matter of the acquisition of the Colonial home of Alexander Hamilton.”

Four years later the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society purchased the house and, nearly a decade after that, in 1933, opened it as a museum. The Crescent Athletic-Hamilton Club presented the Grange in June of 1936 with the 30-foot bronze statue of Hamilton which had stood before the Brooklyn Heights club since 1892.

Despite the relatively shoddy treatment of the house, finally on May 2, 1961 President John F. Kennedy signed the bill that transformed it into a national monument. The New York Times said that Kennedy “did more than enhance the memory of the eminent statesman, a founder of this nation. He also preserved one of the all too few examples of an exquisite style of American architecture, the ‘Federal,’ so light, so decorative and yet so noble.”

Two weeks later the Kennedy Administration passed a resolution to acquire and preserve the Hamilton Grange as a national shrine under the ownership and management of The National Parks Service. At long last, in 1967, the City of New York Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the house a landmark.

In designating the mansion, the Commission noted that “as the building is now situated, the Grange cannot be made to reflect either its architect’s conception or its condition when it was Alexander Hamilton’s residence.”

On June 25, 1999 State Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright requested perpetual easements for a portion of St. Nicholas Park for use as a site for the Hamilton Grange national Memorial. Within four years the Park Service had set aside $11 million to move and restore the house.

The news was not received favorably by everyone. Many residents felt the house should stay. The vicar of St. Luke’s, William M. Savoy, said “It’s here, and it’s been here, and why not leave well enough alone?” Yet another local, Sam Pittman, told The New York Times he was in favor of the move. “Oh, it’s a nice house. But the thing is in sideways!”

photo by Schwartz - New York Daily News
In early May 2008 the Grange was gradually jacked up 35 feet off the ground – a process that took two weeks. Lowered onto rollers, it was cautiously inched a block and a half down Convent Avenue to the park – part of Hamilton’s original estate. Of the $8.4 million earmarked for restoration, the move accounted for approximately 40%.

photo by Joshua Bright for The New York Times
The National Park Service initiated studies to determine precisely how the house looked in 1802 in order to fully restore the exterior. The Grange was reopened to the public in September 2011.  Its new site in St. Nicholas Park allows the visitor, once again, to fully appreciate the house in a suitable setting.

4 comments:

  1. I can barely wait to see "The Grange".

    Am so enjoying reading post after post after post. Fascinating!

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  2. Glad you're enjoying the posts!

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  3. and this will be the 6th time. I've lived across the street from the Hamilton House as it is in my neighborhood. If I've appeared too inquisitive, it is only because i thought i might learn something I didn't already know.

    The photos are great; and I supose you are too for getting the images from long ago to the public.

    Thank you!!!

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  4. there is no such thing as "too inquisitive" when it comes to history and architecture, in my book anyway.

    You're fortunate to live across the street from such an architecturally and historically important structure -- people come from around the country to see it and you get to see it every day!

    ReplyDelete