Thursday, April 4, 2013
An Old House with Legs
Had you been on the corner of Convent Avenue and West 141st St on the morning of June 7, 2008, you would have witnessed the remarkable sight in the image above. A battered old country house was resuming an hegira started 119 years earlier, bound at last (so it was hoped) for a final safe harbor in St. Nicholas Park, a distance of 300 feet.
On that day, the refined architectural delicacy of the Grange, completed in 1802 for General Alexander Hamilton, was, to say the least, obscured. Hamilton, Revolutionary War veteran, confidante of Washington, diplomat, lawmaker, first United States Secretary of the Treasury, and chronic over-spender had lavished most of his liquid assets on creating a 32-acre northern Manhattan summer place. The map below shows: 1) the original location of the house, in the days when Washington (formerly Harlem) Heights was a beautiful and affluent suburb; 2) the site on Convent Avenue where, from 1889 to 2008 the house stood squashed between St. Luke's Church and an apartment building; and 3) today's location at the north end of St. Nicolas Park. Alexander Hamilton's Grange, restored to the tune of $14-or-so million bucks, is again surrounded by lawns and trees.
Hamilton hadn't spent two summers at the Grange before getting himself killed in the infamous duel with Aaron Burr, about which more later. The house remained a landmark in gradually congesting Washington Heights, notable for its historic associations and the circle of 13 gum trees, visible at right in the images below. These were reportedly planted by the great man himself to symbolize the original 13 colonies. In 1833 Mrs. Hamilton sold out to a speculator named Theodore Davis, who flipped the property in 1835 to Isaac Pearson. Pearson, poor fellow, was foreclosed in 1845 by, of all people, Samuel Gray Ward, friend of Emerson and Hawthorne, and American representative of the Baring Brothers Bank. Ward's brother William G. Ward used the Grange as a summer place until his death. His heirs would have carried on, had they too not been foreclosed in 1876, this time by the Emmigrant Industrial Bank. By this point the neighborhood could hardly be considered "in the country." In 1879 Emmigrant sold the Grange on diminished acreage to a rich silk merchant turned real estate developer named William H. De Forest.
Soulless right-angled streets, products of the wretched Commissioners Plan of 1811, had by the 1880s imposed a destructive grid over picturesque old Washington Heights. West 143rd practically kissed the back wall of the old Hamilton house. It sat far enough back from 142nd Street, however, to preserve a modicum of antique grace. DeForest and his son subdivided the property into 300 lots, which they put on the market for $500 apiece. The mansion lingered for a while, inhabited occasionally by contractors.
Meanwhile, downtown at Grove and Hudson, the parishioners of St. Luke's in the Fields were being displaced by a rowdy hoard of immigrants. In 1887, St. Luke's vestry accepted $150,000 for their little church - founded in 1820 by Chelsea developers Don Alonzo Cushman and Clement Clarke Moore - and cast their eyes, as the author of a 1927 church history put it, "far enough north to be sure of peace." Getting wind of St. Luke's situation, a Wall Street broker named Amos Cotting, who by this time owned the land under the Hamilton mansion, offered to give the house to the church for free, and even move it at his own expense, if St. Luke's would build a new church across the street from his property. In 1888, St. Luke's rector Isaac Tuttle accepted the house sight unseen, and in 1889 the Grange was hoisted off its foundations and hauled a block south to the other side of Convent Avenue.
The Grange was not an historic landmark in 1889. In fact, St. Luke's members were largely ignorant of its Hamiltonian connection. Upon arrival at the new site, the building was pivoted 90 degrees counter-clockwise. The original front door now faced away from the avenue. The porch that once shaded the door was removed and the door itself walled up. Likewise, the former back door which, for a short time, had opened practically on top of West 143rd St. was also walled up and the small porch that covered it was also removed. Unlike the back porch, however, the front porch was salvaged and cobbled onto the middle of what had been the west facing piazza, its former Hudson River vistas now replaced by a view of Convent Avenue. A new front door was cut into the wall of a former back bedroom. Significant interior alterations were made as well, particularly the construction of a new and larger stairway. The north wall of Robert H. Robertson's handsome Romanesque Revival church would, in two more years, press right up against the Grange's vanished front door.
In 1924, St. Luke's sold the house to the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, an outfit about which I know very little, other than it went to war several times with Robert Moses. For almost 40 years, the Society fought the good fight to keep Hamilton Grange open to the public. They were probably grateful to transfer it to the National Park Service in 1962. Almost immediately, NPS announced plans to move the house to a more appropriate location.
However, by 1991 the Grange was sitting in the same awkward place, its balustrades rotted off, its foundation shifting. Manhattan NPS superintendent Georgette Nelms decided it had become structurally hazardous and closed it to the public.
Seventeen years after being closed, forty-six years after the plan to move it was announced, it finally got moved.
Here it is, home at last, in a state of nearly restored perfection - of a sort. Hamilton's architect was John McComb, Jr., occasionally described as "Architect Royal to the Federalist Party of New York." McComb's name lends instant cachet to buildings in New York and New Jersey, despite the fact that few survive. Manhattan's City Hall and Gracie Mansion are notable exceptions. Depending on your sense of direction, you may or may not realize the Grange has now been rotated 180 degrees from its original orientation. Having it look backwards, so to speak, provoked a tempest in the preservation teapot, despite the fact that facing it the other way would have meant opening the front door onto a steep uphill grade topped by a surpassingly ugly modern building on the adjoining City College campus. All things considered, I'd vote for the inauthentic placement.
Time to go inside.
Hamilton paid his contractor, Ezra Weeks, a total of $1,593.83 to build a house happily free of the usual front-to-back center hall that characterizes about 110% of the houses built in that era. Architect McComb filled most of the main floor with a pair of back to back octagonal salons, inspired perhaps by the octagonal parlor at the Morris-Jumel house. The McComb parlors, plus the sophisticated enclosed stairway (different from that on the plan below), set the Grange apart. From the outside, however, it resembled many of the old country places that once ornamented rural Manhattan.
Instead of staring down a hall to the other end of the house, what you see from the front door is a pair of angled entrances that lead to the twin salons - drawing room on the left, dining room on the right.
The stairway, located to the left of the front door, differs from that on the plan. The private nature of the rooms upstairs is reinforced by a wall that makes the stairway into a separate room.
To the right of the door is Hamilton's study, whose windows formerly enjoyed views of farms and woods from Harlem to the Bronx. The Grange, as noted earlier, was a summer house. During the winter Hamilton and his large family lived in a series of rented houses in New York, then far to the south. During the fine weather he commuted daily from the Grange to his law office in town. The trip in a one-horse two-wheeled chaise took about an hour and a half each way. Hamilton's public career was distinguished but not remunerative. He resigned from public office in 1795 - before being embarrassed by a messy extra-marital affair - and become a workaholic lawyer, trying to redeem himself by making his family rich.
Let's have a look at the dining room, beyond the angled door below.
The cornice molding is mostly original, but the mantel is not. At the onset of his subdivision Mr. DeForest looted most of the mantels and mirrored doors from the house and installed them in his own residence at 12 West 57th Street. That house, mantels and all, has been demolished. The silver barge in the middle of the table belonged to the Hamiltons; the rest of the furniture is high quality repro. The Hamiltons did a great deal of entertaining, which required servants to haul dinner up from the basement kitchen via a tortuous stair, cross the main hall, and enter the dining room through the same door we used.
The first image below looks from the octagonal dining room to the octagonal drawing room. My guide, George Tonkin, is making sure no one else climbs over that velvet rope. The second image looks the other way, from the drawing room to the dining room.
My personal taste is for houses built a century later, but there is an indisputable elegance to a fine Federal period house.
The back door is at the end of the corridor below. It once opened onto a view of peaceful fields and woods; then onto West 143rd Street; then it didn't open at all because St. Luke's walled it up; now it faces a steep hill with City College on top. Interestingly, all three of the Grange's locations lie within the boundaries of its original estate.
A pair of matching bedrooms flanks either side of the back hall. In one, you can watch a video documenting the move from Convent Avenue.
Let's retrace our steps and go upstairs.
How differently people lived back then - even forgetting about bathrooms. In the days of unpaved, unlit roads and no public transportation, those first floor bedrooms were probably for guests who would nowadays have said goodbye after dinner. Hamilton and his wife had eight children - (agh! how did they do it!) - seven of whom were alive when the house was built. (The eldest boy died in a duel in 1801). The big chamber with the double fireplaces at the end of the hall was probably for the five boys. I'm not sure where the two girls slept, but I'll bet the middle room on the left was Hamilton's and his wife's. It had a fine western view, shade in the morning, and a connecting door to the boys in the back. Of course, maybe those were exactly the reasons they slept on the other side of the hall.
If I'm right about sleeping arrangements the image below shows the master bedroom. Alexander Hamilton might have been a skirt-chaser, but he adored his wife Betsey, nee Elizabeth Schuyler of Albany, NY. Unfortunately, on the day he died he was almost $60,000 in debt. More unfortunately, Betsey's rich and distinguished father, Revolutionary War General Philip Schuyler, died four months after the duel. Were it not for a consortium of Hamilton's admirers, his wife would likely have lost her home and faced a future of either outright poverty or begging from relatives. Instead, a subscription was raised among prominent locals who put her husband's shaky finances in order. One of them, Archibald Gracie, bought the Grange, paid the mortgage and conveyed it back to Mrs. Hamilton in 1805. She was able to keep the house, together with a not insubstantial nest egg, for another twenty-nine years. She died in Washington D.C. in 1854.
The second floor plan is generally intact, although the second floor itself is used as offices and the large chamber on the plan has been divided into three separate rooms. I am told that the great majority of the original architectural fabric is intact, including the plaster walls. Despite this, except for the (mostly) old doors, the second floor feels like new construction.
Let's retrace our stepsand and go down to the basement.
Neither Hamilton nor his guests scuttled in and out under the front stoop, but that's what today's visitor must do. I know, I know, ADA requirements, etc., etc. Alas, unless you're me, you'll forfeit the experience of entering the house as it was meant to be entered, through the front door. The original basement got left on 143rd Street in 1889. The current one is new, of course, and now filled with commendable historic exhibits, plus a single fragment of the original kitchen ceiling.
Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804) hated Aaron Burr (1756-1836). In 1800 Hamilton's assiduous lobbying of the electoral college cost Burr the presidency. In 1804 Hamilton marshaled all the influence at his command to successfully deny Burr the governorhip of New York. In letters and conversation Hamilton described Burr with words like "profligate," "corrupt," and "voluptuary." A certain Dr. Charles D. Cooper in 1804 quoted one of Hamilton's insulting dinner table tirades in a letter published in the "Albany Register." Burr demanded an apology, and didn't get one.
Aaron Burr's grandfather was the great Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards. Hamilton, born in the West Indies, was the bastard child of the fourth son of a lesser Scottish laird. Burr's father was president of Princeton College. The penniless Hamilton was sent to school in North America by kind-hearted Christiansted merchants who raised a collection. (Shades of things to come). Burr was the Revolution's first battleground hero, celebrated for bravery at the Battle of Quebec. Hamilton served honorably in the Revolution, chiefly as an aide to General Washington. Burr's career, considered louche (when considered at all), became so only after the infamous duel. Hamilton provoked Burr; Burr did not provoke Hamilton.
How charming is old Hamilton Grange, although I might note that Burr's country place, called Richmond Hill, was rather more grand. Burr lost it, along with his reputation and his career in public office, in the wake of the duel.
The Grange is restored; now all we have to do is get rid of that horrible building behind it. Absolutely worth a visit; here's the link: http://www.nps.gov/hagr/index.htm