Exploring a Founding Father’s mobile home
Why was a 19th-century New York house relocated twice – and how was it done? Carly Hilts travelled to Harlem to find out.
In 2008, the inhabitants of Harlem – an uptown neighbourhood of New York City – were met by an extraordinary sight: a house, more than 200 years old, was rolling down the road. Moving the c.200-tonne structure was an ambitious undertaking, but this was no ordinary home: it was the country retreat of the Founding Father (and now hip-hop household name, thanks to the musical based on his life) Alexander Hamilton. Today ‘The Grange’ is a National Memorial, but its journey to attaining this status was not straightforward. Indeed, the 2008 move was not the first time the house had been relocated.
It’s quiet uptown
Our story begins over two centuries ago, when Upper Manhattan was mainly farmland and The Grange lay nine miles from the city limits. Hamilton described the house as his ‘sweet project’: it was intended as a haven, set in the rural tranquillity of a 32-acre estate where he and his family could escape the demands of the city. (It was nonetheless conveniently located for the famously industrious politician to commute 90 minutes by stagecoach to his office.)
Built in Federalist Style, the house was a square, two-storey building with projecting verandas and pleasant river views. It was designed by John McComb Jr, architect of grand public buildings including New York’s City Hall, but Hamilton took a keen personal interest in its appearance, particularly the landscaping. He planted 13 sweetgum trees to represent the original US colonies, and drew up detailed instructions for his garden. This aspect was clearly important to him: writing in 1802 to his friend Richard Peters for horticultural tips, he explains that ‘a disappointed politician… is very apt to take refuge in a garden’. It was not merely professional disappointments that he was seeking distraction from, however. His eldest son Philip had been killed in a duel, aged just 19, a year earlier; it is possible that Hamilton sought solace from his grief by throwing himself into perfecting The Grange.
The resulting house was much smaller and simpler than the country mansions of other founding fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson’s ‘Monticello’ and George Washington’s ‘Mount Vernon’ (both in Virginia). Instead, The Grange was an elegant but cosy family house – a sentiment reflected in its name, which referred to the Ayrshire home of Hamilton’s Scottish ancestors. Unfortunately, Hamilton would only enjoy the finished house for two years. Although he was by all accounts a brilliant and driven man – an entrepreneurial orphaned immigrant who rose to become George Washington’s indispensable aide and the fledgling USA’s first Secretary of the Treasury – he was also a proud and difficult character, and in 1804 he too was fatally shot in a duel.
Hamilton’s widow remained in the house until 1833, when she sold The Grange and moved to live with her daughter, also called Eliza, in the city. Manhattan was flourishing, and by 1889 its burgeoning street grids had expanded so far north that they were encroaching on what had been Hamilton’s estate. The Grange itself lay directly in the path of the planned West 143rd Street, but rather than demolish the house it was purchased by St Luke’s Episcopal Church and moved a few hundred metres. This was no small task, involving raising the house on railway jacks, mounting it on wooden wheels, and using horses to pull it to its new location beside the church, where it was used as a chapel and a rectory. The Grange had been spared, but at a cost: it was stripped of its porches and the whole building was rotated 90° so that its original front door lay against the church.
Who tells your story
Decades of disrepair took their toll, but the house’s fortunes rallied in 1924 when it was bought by the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society and turned into a museum. Then, finally in 1962, it was purchased the National Park Foundation. Congress ruled that The Grange should be designated a National Memorial – but with strict stipulations that it should be relocated and restored to its original character. It would be almost half a century before this second move took place: the local community feared that a vacant lot would damage the appearance of the neighbourhood (by now known as ‘Hamilton Heights’), and federal, state, and city bureaucracy also had to be squared.
After much debate, a suitable spot was finally agreed: St Nicholas Park, less than two blocks away, which lay within the bounds of the old Hamilton estate, and whose open green space was deemed more sympathetic to The Grange’s original setting. How, though, was the house to be moved? Although technology had advanced greatly since 1889, the intervening years had also seen The Grange become boxed in by buildings. An apartment block now stood against its right side, while the church had built a stone porch that overlapped its outward face, making a forward move impossible. It was suggested that The Grange could be cut in half or parts removed to help extract it, but both these options were deemed too risky to its structural integrity. Instead, the project engaged Wolfe House & Building Movers, an East Coast firm specialising in relocating multi-tonne structures. What followed was an ingenious operation.
If The Grange could not go past the church porch, it would have to go over it. The first step was to raise the house more than 35ft in the air on a system of linked hydraulic jacks that would ensure a uniform lift. Cribbing towers – layers of wooden supports and steel beams – were placed underneath after each stage of lifting. Twenty days (and 7,000 pieces of cribbing, plus almost two miles of chain) later the painstaking process was complete, and rollers pushed by hydraulic rams could be used to move the house on to an adjacent crib structure so that it could be lowered down to the street – a process that took another 24 hours. Once The Grange was safely terrestrial, it was placed on nine remote-controlled dollies, effectively giving it 72 wheels that could be steered in any direction. The house was ready to drive to its new foundations in the park – a painstaking process, navigating a corner and a 6% grade slope – all the while being followed by heavy forklift equipment that could act as a brake if The Grange started to edge backwards. Finally, 38 days after the house was separated from its foundations beside the church, the project was complete.
With the house safely settled in the park, The Grange was viewable from all sides, as Hamilton had intended, for the first time in over a century. Its new location was not without controversy, though: The Grange had originally faced south-west, but today its front door points north-east. This change affected the play of light within its carefully designed rooms, purists complained – but, their opponents pointed out, leaving the house on its original orientation would have seen it facing into a steep hillside.
Since then, the house has undergone years of conservation and restoration – a multi-million dollar project drawing on extensive studies to reconstruct its appearance in 1802. The original entrance, missing porches, and other lost architectural features have been restored, mouldings and ornamentation have been carefully reproduced from surviving evidence, and the rooms are furnished with a combination of objects once owned by Hamilton, contemporary antiques, and reproductions of the family’s possessions that are now held by museums or elsewhere.
For information (including updates during the COVID-19 pandemic), see www.nps.gov/hagr.
Under normal circumstances, Hamilton Grange National Memorial is open all year from Wednesday to Sunday (except on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day). The visitor centre is open 9am-5pm on those days.
Historically furnished rooms on the floor above the visitor centre can only be visited on ranger-guided tours (10am, 11am, and 2pm) or self-guided visits (noon-1pm, 3-4pm). Entry is free.
For more about how the house was moved in 2008, see www.wolfehousebuildingmovers.com/project/alexander-hamilton-national-memorial.
This is an extract of an article featured in issue 102 of Current World Archaeology. Click here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.