2.16.2014

Alexander Hamilton's The Grange

(Revised September 2015) Below is the dining room of the only real house Alexander Hamilton (1757-1804) ever knew, a place he called The Grange, built in the bucolic countryside of Harlem Heights north of what was then New York City.



Hamilton Grange, operated by the National Park Service, commemorates the life of this influential Founding Father. The Federal Style house is located just off W. 141st Street between St. Nicholas Avenue and Convent Avenue. In spite of the fake grapes and fake roses, it was here in this room that Hamilton started to come to life for me.

He was an ambitious, stubborn and argumentative man, with a cold command of policy. But rather not so great in politics. I imagined him sitting at the head of this table, bantering with his children, 
arguing about the nation's finances with guests, or telling stories about George Washington.

As I learned in the ranger-guided tour of the house on Sunday, he had to watch his own finances. He cut corners in some places on the house, but not on others. A conspicuous consumer, Hamilton splurged on the silverware.   

Bullet points from the resume of Alexander Hamilton: 

• Aide-de-camp for General George Washington 1777
• Commander under Lafayette, Yorktown 1781 
• New York delegate to the Continental Congress 1782-83
• New York legislature 1787
• Delegate, Continental Congress 1787
• With John Jay, James Madison, author of The Federalist Papers, arguing for ratification of the U.S. Constitution 
1787-88
• Secretary of the Treasury 1789
• Author, program to finance the federal government, 1790-91
• Founder, Bank of New York
• Leaves government to practice law in New York 1795
• Inspector-general of the Army 1798-1800
• Feuds with John Adams, 1796-1800
• Leaves government altogether 1800
• Moves with his family to The Grange, Harlem 1802
• Dies following a duel with Aaron Burr 1804



A proponent of a strong central government, for reasons he well argued in The Federalist Papers, Hamilton came to represent an arrogance that was not well-received among his more democratic-leaning countrymen. 


The statue above is outside St. Luke's Episcopal Church.



In 1802 Hamilton, his wife Elizabeth Schulyer Hamilton, and his children moved into a new dream house, The Grange, the center of a 32-acre country estate. From the house you could see the Hudson River and the Harlem River. We are not far from the battlefields.

In September of 1776 at the Battle of Harlem Heights (near Columbia University, Hamilton's alma mater in Morningside Heights), the Continental Army under the command of General Washington stood tough against the British Army. In November 1776 the patriots lost their hold of New York City in the Battle of Fort Washington (Bennett Park in Washington Heights).

The National Parks ranger conducting tours of the house told a tragic tale that befell the family. In November 1801, Hamilton's son, Phillip, died in a duel to defend his father's honor. His sister, Angelica, was overcome with grief and suffered a breakdown. She never spoke again, expressing herself solely at the piano. The piano is here in this room.  

Hamilton's house is now in its third location. Originally perched a few blocks north and west, the house fell into a slow decline following Hamilton's death and his widow's subsequent move to Washington, DC. 

St. Luke's Episcopal Church bought the house in 1889 and hauled it a couple of blocks for use as a chapel. The church then built a big Richardsonian Romanesque building (background in the sculpture pictures, as below). The National Park Service acquired the house in 1962. 

An ambitious restoration project began in recent years, and the house was moved in 2008 to the current location in St. Nicholas Park. It was a big deal when the park service moved the house. A team hoisted the structure high up on hydraulic coils, essentially lifting it over the church, and then back down to the street and over to the park. A short film about this feat of logistical engineering concludes the tour of the house.

Hamilton couldn't stay out of the political fray long, especially when it came to his long-standing feud with Aaron Burr. The end came on July 11, 1804 in Weehawken, NJ, on the very same field where Hamilton's son was killed, when Burr shot and mortally wounded Hamilton in a duel. Hamilton died the next day.  In addition to restoring the house, the park service successfully rehabilitates Hamilton as an important figure in American history.

Before the trip downtown, enjoy a walk around this area. The streets are lined with beautiful brownstones. This neighborhood is called Hamilton Heights.

While the narrative told at Hamilton Grange concedes that he remains controversial, the house and the story's tragic nuances humanize our nation's number one Federalist.

By the way, if you find yourself appalled over the arguments of states rights advocates, you may find yourself cheering here.
    
For a full Hamilton tour of New York City, take the train downtown to Trinity Wall Street and visit his grave in the churchyard. It's a most fitting resting place for Hamilton, just blocks away from the nation's financial center and the steps where George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States. 

See National Park Park Service page on the Hamilton Grange National Memorial