How an 1890 Townhouse Was Brought Back From Near-Ruin

Our first visits to our future Harlem house were conducted by flashlight because much of the building had been boarded up. It was impossible to work out what certain parts had once been like. Empty for eight years, it had previously been an SRO, a  synagogue and school, and some kind of clinic. Tiny closets held unpleasant bathrooms, stuffed in after the fact. There was graffiti on the walls. The basement held two or three inches of water. The blocked drains had overflowed, ruining the ceilings. It was in many respects disgusting.

But it had been built as a grand family home, and behind the iron-spot Roman brick façade lay a stack of four oval rooms. Four! One would have been exciting enough. The house had kept nearly all its original fireplaces and a great deal of its paneling and plasterwork. It had been built in 1890 by the baking-soda magnate John Dwight, co-founder of Arm & Hammer. His initials were embossed in plaster on the dining-room ceiling.

Not long after we bought the house, members of the Dwight family got in touch to say they had photographs of the building from the 1920s, made when the family had left Harlem. Would we be interested?

Would we be interested! The album, together with the original blueprints, answered nearly all of our questions. Every room, except the bathrooms and the cellar, had been photographed. “It’s the Rosetta stone,” said our contractor, Mike Casey. Our architect Sam White (the great-grandson of Stanford White) said he had never worked with such a well-documented house.

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By James Fenton and Darryl Pinckney | September 29, 2015

East Harlem Church Struggles to Pay for Repairs

Facade of landmarked St. Cecilia's Church (Photo by Elizabeth Harball)

The Rev. Peter Mushi stands outside Saint Cecilia’s Catholic church in East Harlem after Sunday mass, surrounded by a diverse crowd. The priest, who seems to know each churchgoer by name, laughs with elderly women, asks children about their schoolwork and places his hands on those who ask for a special blessing. He congratulates people on birthdays and anniversaries. Although his first language is Chaga, spoken in his native Tanzania, Mushi easily switches between English and Spanish when speaking with his parishioners.

Saint Cecilia’s has more than 750 members, including Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Filipinos and African-Americans. Throughout its 138-year history, it has aided East Harlem’s immigrants. Today, it helps operate a food pantry, hosts Narcotics Anonymous meetings and supports the Momentum Project, providing meals for people with HIV/AIDS.

But the church is in desperate need of repair. Its ceiling and walls are dotted with patches and re-patches. Water has crept down into the sanctuary and damaged a mural. Outside, the gutters are rusted and leaky, and the asphalt roof, installed over the church’s original tin roof, has cracked and eroded. The church’s intricate exterior masonry, including a beautiful terra-cotta relief panel of Saint Cecilia playing an organ, has weathered and weeds have begun to grow in the crevasses.

Repairs will be complicated and expensive. “It has not been maintained for a while,” says Mushi. “It cries for help.”

Mushi has been campaigning to raise money for this project since he arrived at the parish two years ago. He points out that the two historic buildings flanking the church, the Julia del Burgos Latin Cultural Center and Cristo Rey High School, have already been restored. He’s determined to “complete” the block.

Built in 1887, the church is a New York City Landmark and is also listed on the U.S. National Historic Register of Historic Places. The building was designed by Napoleon LeBrun and Sons, which also designed the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower, a midtown landmark. Built by Irish immigrants, its construction was overseen by the Rev. Michael J. Phelan, known as “the Builder of Churches.”

Mushi explains that the original roof was made of tin, which is no longer available. It will be replaced by a tinted copper material, which will cost about $1.2 million, a daunting figure for a church more focused on serving residents rather than seeking their donations.

According to the New York City Department of City Planning and the 2000 U.S. Census, 38 percent of East Harlem residents live below the poverty level. Saint Cecilia’s neighbors include several housing projects and its Sunday collection never exceeds $4,000, barely enough to cover maintenance costs, Mushi explains. In fact, Saint Cecilia’s recently reduced its food pantry program due to budget cuts by Catholic Charities.

Despite such financial challenges, Mushi and church members agree that restoration should be a priority.

“We are worried that the roof is going to fall,” says parishioner Victor Alicea. “Someday, somebody will get hurt.”

An April fundraiser raised $18,000, only enough to pay for temporary roof patches. Instead of asking parishioners for more money, Mushi has focused on getting grants.

He recruited grant writer Ann Saxon-Hersh, who was impressed by the church’s historical and cultural role and describes it as “a very important cog in the wheel” of East Harlem. Noting the local trend towards gentrification, Saxon-Hersh hopes that a restored St. Cecilia’s will become the heart of the El Barrio Historic District.

“East Harlem is going up, not down,” she says, “but will Saint Cecilia’s be a part of that?”

Last year, Saxon-Hersh and Mushi succeeded in winning three major grants. The largest, from the New York State Environmental Protection Fund, was for $200,000. Two others, totaling $80,000, came from the New York Landmarks Conservancy.

Ann Friedman, who directs the Conservancy’s Sacred Sites Program, was the first to urge Mushi and the Archdiocese to replace the roof with tinted copper rather than asphalt, in order to preserve the church’s Romanesque Revival architectural style. She explained via email that the Conservancy grant aims “to provide an incentive for a high level of restoration, by funding the difference in cost between routine repair and state-of-the-art restoration.”

However, the state grant is a matching grant; to receive the $200,000, the church must first raise that amount from within its community. And to begin repairs next summer, Saint Cecilia’s must somehow come up with the money by May. “This is the biggest challenge,” says Mushi.

Trying to think creatively, Mushi plans to collect cell phones and printer cartridges to re-sell to a recycling center. If he collects 75,000 phones, he will raise $225, 000 – more than enough to secure the grant. He has mobilized young parishoners, encouraging them to use social networking to spread the word. He also sought help from other New York City churches, such as Saint Phillip and Saint James in the Bronx. Collecting that many phones and cartridges will be difficult, he admits, but he is determined to accomplish his goals.

“You know, problems make you think,” he says, smiling.

By Elizabeth Harball on Oct 11th, 2011                 

Restored Home of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton to Re-Open Saturday

HARLEM—Five years after it was shuttered and relocated, the National Park Service will reopen Hamilton Grange, the home of Alexander Hamilton, one of the nation’s founding fathers.

The Grange, built in 1802, originally stood on Hamilton’s 34-acre estate on the site of what would eventually become West 143rd Street. As the street grid developed, the house was moved in 1889 to save it from demolition. The Federalist-style home was moved again in 2008 to the southeast corner of St. Nicholas Park at West 141st Street.

The once-neglected building, which underwent a meticulous $14.5 million renovation that restored many of the home’s historical elements, will open to the public Saturday. The home has been restored to resemble as closely as possible what Hamilton would have seen for the two years he lived in the home, including the original paint colors.

Hamilton Grange at its former site at 287 Convent Ave. (wallyg/flickr)

In restoring the home, the park service also hopes to reanimate the discussion about one of this country’s lesser know, yet influential founding fathers.

“Alexander Hamilton is not one of the founding fathers that the United States has traditionally spent a lot of time talking about in the last few generations,” said Mindi Rambo, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service. “You hear much more about Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Ben Franklin. But Alexander Hamilton was very important to how the federal government runs today.”

Hamilton, who was born out of wedlock in the West Indies, was instrumental in helping to get the Constitution adopted. He founded the agency that would become the U.S. Coast Guard and served as the first Treasury Secretary from 1789 to 1795.

The only New Yorker to sign the Constitution, he was an advocate of a free press and founded the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves. He also founded the Bank of New York.

“In many ways, his was the quintessential New York story. He was an immigrant from the Caribbean who came here with little more than his skills, ambitions and his mind who made a name for himself,” said Rambo.

The Grange is the only home Hamilton was known to have owned. Hamilton only lived in it for two years before he was killed in a duel with Vice President Aaron Burr in 1804.

The restoration includes reorienting the house so that the front entrance to the home is back in its original location. The original staircase to the home has been restored, in addition to the parlor room, which includes some of the original chairs.

The dining room and Hamilton’s study also includes historical furnishings. The original, but non-working, piano played by Hamilton’s daughter Angelica is also present.

The over-sized mirrored doors of the dining room, which are the same size as the windows in a design touch meant to bring the outdoors inside, have also been restored. The dining room windows are triple hung and designed to be used as doorways to the side porches.

“You step into the foyer where Hamilton would have met his guests,” said Rambo. “It was a meticulous process that involved 18 months of architectural investigation.”

Architects opened walls and reexamined some of the previous restoration plans conceived before the move. They looked for the home’s structure to tell the house’s history.

The investigation was crucial because it allowed some of the home’s original pieces to be rediscovered. During a previous renovation, the tops of the oversized dining room doors had been sawed off. Architects found them being used as a brace elsewhere in the house and restored the doors.

“The restoration took longer than anticipated but this was worth it because the house told us what it looked like and it allowed us to bring it much closer to what Hamilton would have seen himself, said Rambo.

Actors portraying Hamilton and 18th century New Yorkers will be on hand Saturday in full costume to give visitors a taste of what Hamilton’s life was like at the Grange.

Savona Bailey-McClain, executive director of West Harlem Art Fund has curated a work by artist Abigail Simon that allows visitors to see and hear a historical representation of the sites and sounds of the Grange using their smart phones.

“A lot of people don’t know this history,” said Bailey-McClain.

“The site is such a huge improvement over the previous site that its reopening is a great thing for West Harlem,” said Brad Taylor, vice chair of Community Board 9 who has worked on issues regarding the Grange over the years.

“It will will bring more prominence to Hamilton, his legacy and his immigrant background because we are a community of immigrants,” said Taylor.

The previous site of the home at 287 Convent Ave. will remain as a garden. After seeking suggestions from the public, Rambo said the overwhelming majority of respondents wanted to retain the garden.

“The National Park Service recommendation is to leave the Convent Avenue site as green space for the community,” said Rambo.

Taylor said many West Harlem residents will be pleased to hear the news.

“With this solution we don’t lose any open space and we gain a permanent garden on Convent Avenue in a historic neighborhood,” said Taylor.

A few years ago, talk of removing the home from the neighborhood was met with stiff community opposition. Now, integrating the home into the Hamilton Heights neighborhood, which is named after Hamilton, is a major goal of the National Park Service, said Rambo.

The Grange contains a new visitors center and exhibit space that will feature a time lapse film of the home’s move and a history of the neighborhood. Soon, area residents will be able to make an appointment to give their oral histories of the neighborhood and talk about what the house means to them.

“Because of a lot of the things happening in the economy and financial markets people are talking about Hamilton again. This is our opportunity to say he was more than economics. We wanted to honor Hamilton’s legacy and his importance to the neighborhood and the United States,” said Rambo.

Hamilton Grange, located in St. Nicholas Park at West 141st Street, will re-open to the public with a celebration from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17. On Sunday, Sept. 18 from noon to 4 p.m., there will be a lecture series featuring speakers discussing the house, neighborhood and Alexander Hamilton.

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