Two years before his early death in a duel against Aaron Burr, Hamilton built a house in the country (now Harlem) for his large family. The house sat nearly derelict for years. The last time I was in New York I looked it up and saw that it was closed to the public. Before this latest trip with Seamus, I hopefully looked it up again, and discovered that not only is it open to the public, it is newly renovated and fabulous.
The house sits on a hill in the northwest corner of St. Nicholas park. A friendly ranger told us that a tour would start in twenty minutes and we amused ourselves in the meantime with walking around the outside of the house and admiring the view.
Dejected...Seamus does not want to tour Alexander Hamilton's house.
I thought we were going to get the tour all to ourselves, but just before it was supposed to start, a group of people from Denver arrived. The best part of the tour is the story of how the house got to be where it is. Originally built a short distance from where it now stands, the city of New York planned to run a road through it in the late 1800s. A church bought the house and moved it about a block away. The lot where the church parked the house was narrow, so the side porches were sliced off and the whole house turned sideways, with a new entrance situated in what was once the side of the house. And there it sat for over 100 years until the house was donated to the National Parks Service and moved to its new location.
The Hamilton House before being moved and renovated.
The problem with moving the house this time was that it was blocked in by the porch roof of the church next door. The entire house had to be jacked up to clear the roof and then was rolled to its current location. Someone had the sense to film this operation, and we got to see the film as part of the tour. Ordinarily, I don't like to be shown movies on historic tours, but I actually got a little verklept watching this, contemplating how close this beautiful house came to being destroyed.
The people from Colorado wanted to know how much everything cost, and our guide hedged by saying "a lot," or "too much." At any rate, the cost of buying a piece of a city park on which to place the house, plus moving and restoring it left little money for furnishings. Most of the furniture is reproduction, with three original pieces, donated by the Hamilton family. There's wall-to-wall carpeting on the floor in a "period pattern" and you can't tour the bedrooms. Still, they accomplished a lot just getting the house to where it is. The renovation was complete and the house opened to the public only a few months ago. I was really impressed.
I also liked the mirrored panes in the dining room doors--for reflecting candlelight. The guide told us that originally, the Hudson was visible from the dining room windows and that the candlelight would have reflected off the water. It must have been magical.
One original piece is a marble bust of Hamilton, made by a pesky bust maker--apparently the 18th century equivalent of those guys who knock on your door and try to make you hire them to shovel your driveway. Hamilton didn't want a bust of himself and refused to buy it when it was finished, but when the sculptor threatened to sell it elsewhere, Hamilton--no doubt worried that Aaron Burr would buy it and scribble a mustache on it with a sharpie marker--heaved a big sigh and bought it himself.
This tour is free and totally worth the subway ride all the way to 145th St. Tip: Take the A train or the C train to 145th St. Walk downhill the long block to 141st St. For the ride home, don't struggle up the hill. Continue downhill instead to the 135th St. station. You'll also get to enjoy pretty St. Nicholas Park, which is surprisingly rugged for an urban park.