By Nancy Spannaus
June 3, 2019—On May 30, I was thrilled to finally be able to visit the Grange, the summer home which Alexander Hamilton built in the early 1800s. I joined a tour given by the vice-president of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness (AHA) Society, Sergio Villavicencio, who provided a detailed description of the house and its history, room by room. The Hamilton Grange National Memorial is an historic site run by the National Park Service (NPS); The AHA Society is the official partner of the NPS at the site.
Hamilton located this house in Harlem Heights, to allow his large family to escape the summer heat and frequent yellow fever outbreaks of Lower Manhattan. Sergio pointed out that the builder, Ezra Weeks, did his work partially as payment for Hamilton’s legal representation of Weeks’ brother Levi in a famous murder trial. (Hamilton was part of a trio of defense lawyers which Sergio called the “dream team”—Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and Brockholst Livingston.)
The home can be correctly described as a mansion, with very tall ceilings and elegant furnishings. It stayed intact until 1889, well after the invention of photography, so its appearance is well-documented. While Hamilton lived there only two years before his death, his wife Eliza lived there approximately 30 years.
We began in foyer, which was adorned with a copy of the huge full-length painting of Hamilton by John Trumbull which was commissioned by Hamilton’s friends in New York City in 1791. The original alternates between the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas and the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.
From there we visited the main rooms on the first floor—the parlor and the dining room—which were built as octagons, according to the fashion of the day. They were painted with some of the most opulent colors as well—an indication of wealth and status. Both rooms were very light, with full-length windows that opened like doors onto porches.
The parlor, shown here with guide Sergio, contained nine upholstered chairs, five of which are original. More impressive to me was its spinet piano, which had been a gift to Hamilton’s daughter Angelica from Eliza’s sister Angelica. It had been shipped from London. Hamilton himself, according to biographer Ron Chernow, loved music, especially singing.
The dining room also contained a significant original piece—a large silver serving tray on the table. Sergio pointed out an extraordinary feature of the room. The doors’ interiors were covered with mirrors, as were two opposing walls. This arrangement, combined with the large silver serving tray, allowed for amplification of the candlelight which was used to illuminate the room during evening dinner parties.
I was also quite taken with Hamilton’s study, which was on the main floor as well, right off the foyer. It too was painted with opulent coloring (in this case, a deep bright green). This room contained both Hamilton’s travelling desk and his actual desk (shown here). It was here he prepared for his historic defense of Harry Croswell, an editor who was being prosecuted for defamation of President Jefferson. Hamilton argued that truth should be considered as a defense, as long as it was delivered without malicious intent. Here also one suspects that Hamilton prepared his final letter to his wife, on the eve of the fatal duel.
Tours of the house do not include the bedrooms upstairs and the basement. Since there is no record of the layout of those floors, they cannot be properly restored.
It should be noted that the Grange, which Hamilton named after his family’s ancestral home in Scotland, does not stand in its original location, although it is only two or three blocks away. Due to development in the area, the house was moved twice, the last time by the NPS in 2008 to the present location. At the time it was built, it faced southwest, and commanded a view of the rivers on both sides of the island. It currently faces northeast.
The Grange features a small bookstore, an brief illustrated tour of Alexander Hamilton’s extraordinary life, and an approximately ten-minute film. The film presents Hamilton as the revolutionary visionary he was, and is free of many of the standard fixations. For those just being introduced to Alexander Hamilton, it is a very good beginning.
For a fuller understanding of Hamilton’s historical role, especially in creating the unique American System of economics that built the United States into the envy of the world, I would recommend my own contribution, Hamilton Versus Wall Street. .