On Sunday, June 12, Alexander Hamilton continues his climb from half-forgotten dude on the $10 bill to Broadway hip-hop heartthrob. Hamilton, the Lin-Manuel Miranda musicalbased on the U.S. statesman’s dashing, dramatic and doomed life is up for a record 16 Tony Awards.
Nabbing a ticket to Hamilton is no easy feat, and it will probably be harder after a few Tony wins. (Even though Miranda, shown here as Hamilton, has announced he’ll be leaving the show in July.) But a few miles north of Broadway, you can explore another shrine to the hero of the Battle of Yorktown, secretary of the Treasury and really cool guy.
Completed in 1802, the Hamilton Grange National Memorialreopened in 2011 after a block-and-a-half move and a $14 million renovation. A home that Hamilton commissioned and the only home he is known to have owned, The Grange is an architectural gem that provides a fascinating, surprisingly intimate glimpse of Hamilton and his family.
In 1798 Hamilton wrote to his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton:
“I have formed a sweet project, of which I will make you my confident [sic] when I come to New York, and in which I rely that you will cooperate with me cheerfully.
“You may guess and guess and guess again
“Your guessing will still be in vain.”
The new house, he hoped, might be a place where he could do that. He would keep an office in Lower Manhattan, about 90 minutes away by horse-drawn chaise. But here he could relax and even entertain ideas of farming — a surprising turn for a confirmed urban New Yorker.
A Suitable Architectural Style
Hamilton named the new home The Grange, after property his aristocratic grandfather had owned in Scotland. He chose James McComb Jr. for his architect. McComb had designed homes for some of Hamilton’s wealthy friends and had also designed Gracie Mansion, the official residence of New York mayors since its completion in 1799. He would go on to design New York City Hall, completed in 1812.
McComb worked primarily in the elegantly symmetrical Federal style, suitable for the author of The Federalist Papers. His design for The Grange was gracious but not extravagant, a two-story home with an imposing front staircase and two wide, inviting porches.
Today visitors enter the house through a park service office that occupies the basement, where the kitchen once stood. But, just as in 1802, the first stop is the foyer, shown here.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, oilcloth was a popular flooring choice, including among the Founding Fathers. It could be found at Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello as well as at The Grange.
It is, instead, a section of an early-19th-century gutter removed during the home’s restoration and saved for display.
When built, The Grange looked out on substantial acreage that Hamilton hoped to farm. Today it looks out on a pleasant Harlem neighborhood adjacent to City College of New York.
The house’s main floor is dominated by two octagonal rooms: the parlor and the dining room. Architect McComb liked octagons for the light they brought into the home, and for the views they provided — in the early 1800s, Harlem was still countryside, and The Grange’s setting offered views of both the Harlem and Hudson rivers.
The parlor was a natural gathering place for family, and for the social and still-ambitious Hamiltons’ many prominent guests. Placed by the windows is a Clementi fortepiano once played by Hamilton’s daughter Angelica. Though the card table is a reproduction, four of the chairs are original. A French Empire clock from around 1800 sits on the mantel.
The Grange’s downstairs rooms were much used, but much of the Hamiltons’ family life took place upstairs, in bedrooms that have been structurally restored but not furnished and are not open to the public.
The Grange’s formal dining room is another octagon. Once the house was finished, Hamilton and his wife, Elizabeth, entertained there often. Dinner guests included Jerome Bonaparte (Napoleon’s younger brother) and artist John Trumbull, who painted the original of the full-length portrait of Hamilton seen in the foyer.
The silver tray at the center of the dining table is one of the few pieces known to have belonged to Hamilton. The sideboard is a reproduction, as is the silver wine cooler, a near copy of one given to Hamilton by his mentor, George Washington.
Elegant as it is, the dining room holds a mystery: Where did the food come from? The kitchen was in the basement, where the park service office now sits. The house had no dumbwaiter to transport food upstairs. Servants must have lugged heavy dishes up and down narrow flights of stairs.
Dinner parties were not always held inside. Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow notes that the week before his duel with Aaron Burr, Hamilton invited 70 guests for an elaborate ball that included musicians playing in the outdoors, so guests could be entertained as they strolled The Grange’s grounds.
The Grange was intended to be a country retreat. As mentioned, Hamilton still kept a house and an office in Lower Manhattan. But even in the country, he was too much of a workaholic to sit idly for long, and he used this small office in The Grange frequently. On the table sit three volumes from Hamilton’s library of a thousand books.
But Hamilton did not work in this office, or live in this house, for long. The Hamiltons moved into The Grange in 1802. By 1804 he was embroiled in a feud with his longtime nemesis, Vice President Aaron Burr, and by June of that year, the two had agreed to a duel.
Hamilton left The Grange for the last time on Monday, July 9. Two days later, at seven in the morning on a New Jersey cliff overlooking the Hudson, he was shot dead by Burr.
Completing The Grange had depleted Hamilton’s finances. He died $60,000 in debt. His friends organized a subscription fund to aid the family; they also bought The Grange from Elizabeth Hamilton for $30,000 and sold it back to her at half price. She remained in the home until 1833, when she sold it. She eventually moved to Washington, D.C., where she lived until age 97.
As for The Grange, its history is nearly as interesting and turbulent as its original owner’s. By the late 1800s, Harlem was no longer countryside: It was city, and it was determined that the old house was in the way of road construction. The home was given to a church and moved 250 feet from its original site. Throughout the 20th century, as Manhattan became even more densely developed, The Grange stood half-forgotten, crowded in among taller, newer buildings.
The church that owned the building donated it to the National Park Service in 1962, on the condition that the building be moved to a more suitable replacement location. It took nearly 50 years for that to happen. In 2008 The Grange was raised on hydraulic lifts, then rolled on dollies a block and a half to where it stands now.
Visiting Hamilton Grange: Hamilton Grange National Memorial, 414 W. 141st St., Manhattan. Open Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is free. More info