The Hamilton Grange, the upper Manhattan house built by Alexander Hamilton, reopened to the public in September after a half-century of work. that included a relocation.
Owners of historic property regularly complain about dealing with government landmark agencies, which can be sticklers for keeping New York’s great buildings looking the same for the ages.
These critics can take some consolation by looking at the recent rehabilitation of Hamilton Grange, the upper Manhattan house built by founding father Alexander Hamilton. It shows just how persnickety a preservation project can be.
The story dates to 1962 when Congress agreed to give historic monument status to the house on the condition that the National Park Service relocate the building and recreate Hamilton’s vision of a country retreat in Harlem away from the bustle of the city. Nearly a half-century later, the job is done: The Park Service went as far as spending $14.5 million to jack the house up more than 40 feet and roll it down the road from its previous location, a cramped lot on Convent Avenue, so that the view from the porch more resembles what Alexander Hamilton saw when he walked on it more than two centuries ago.
The sitting room with the original piano .
The house, which has museum displays on the ground floor and a recreation of its original interiors above, reopened to the public in September, and from an architectural and landmark perspective is an exciting, fascinating success. Walking south along St. Nicholas Avenue from the B train stop, one turns the corner at 141st, starts westward up the hill, and is suddenly transported back when Harlem’s map was spotted with country estates, streams, fields, farms and hunting grounds.
Other historic redevelopments, of course, don’t have to go through this kind of scrutiny because landmark agencies give commercial projects more latitude. Last week, for example, the city Landmarks Preservation Commission indicated it was close to approving developer Jared Kushner’s plan to build a glass penthouse on top of the landmark Puck Building in SoHo.
Earlier plans by Mr. Kushner were rejected because the changes would have been too visible. The latest version “has calmed down,” Frederick Bland, an architect and one of the commissioners said last week.
A scale reproduction of the house
A trip to Hamilton Grange is a reminder why it’s important to do this. In the middle of a dense, highly residential part of central Harlem known as Hamilton Heights now sits a genteel, federal-style pinewood cottage, with peach siding and thin, graceful white columns framing its veranda, overlooking the park’s sloping swath of green.
The original architect was famed Federal-style designer John McComb Jr., who also was the architect of Gracie Mansion and New York’s City Hall. Mr. McComb built at the nadir of the Federal period of architecture, which, like the Georgian before it, suggested an American style based on the classical proportions of ancient Greece, but which lightened its architectural elements, adding graceful flourishes and swapping smooth stone and wood materials for heavy Georgian bricks.
Hamilton Grange is a shining example of the style. Built with an almost aggressive symmetry—Mr. McComb added two non-functional chimneys to the building just to balance out its roof, and the interior lobby presents the anteroom and the dining hall as mirror images of one another, arranged around a bust of Hamilton himself—the house suggests a rationality that isn’t accidental.
The Founding Fathers sought to express their sense of Enlightenment-era logic in everything they did, from the Constitution to the houses in which they entertained.
Hamilton Grange’s new home isn’t the original site of its construction, which was near where 143rd hits Amsterdam Avenue today, and because of encroaching street grid and the development of Harlem, couldn’t be. Its front entrance no longer faces southward, as the original did, and some of the original conditions on the interior were impossible to re-create, because historians couldn’t divine the intentions of Mr. McComb.
“What’s important to a historian is to try to get history right, or as close to right as you can, whether it’s writing a book, making a film, or relocating a house,” says Steve Laise, chief of cultural resources for the National Park Service’s Manhattan branch. “In its former location, it looked like nothing at all, the way it was crowded in … The reality of what the home is now is much close to its historical reality. It’s about honoring Hamilton’s intent.”
Historical architects have restored the house’s front and back porches, which were lost in the Convent Avenue location, giving the cottage, which is actually quite small, a bit of the sprawling affect of a country estate.
On the location question, the Park Service has made the best out of a bad situation. Mr. Laise says the National Park Service considered at least four sites for the house, including Central Park, Riverside Park, the south part of the City College campus, and near the Dyckman farmhouse in Inwood. It settled on the current location because, among other reasons, it is within the footprint of Hamilton’s original, 33-acre estate.
Another effect of the relocation is that the house gives new purpose to a public park: a conduit to history. Park planners have long worried that St. Nicholas Park, a 23-acre swath of green that runs north-to-south alongside the campus of City College of New York, had become a dodgy no-man’s-land after daylight hours and had been looking to add more positive, public use to it.
Alexander Hamilton lived in the Grange for only two years: The house was completed in 1802, and he was killed in 1804. But thanks to good planning and the National Park Service’s right-sized sense of the importance of historical architecture, Hamilton’s version of New York City lives again.