FOUR HISTORIC HOUSES and 100 YEARS OF HISTORY – IN ONE DAY! This post is about an all-day tour of four historic, Revolutionary era, sites in New York City – the HAMILTON GRANGE, the MORRIS-JUMEL Mansion, DYCKMAN FARMHOUSE and the VAN CORTLANDT MANSION. Three are located in Upper Manhattan and one is just over the river in nearby Riverdale, in Van Cortlandt Park. Transportation to the four locations (and an additional lunch stop) will be via a chartered bus. Tickets for the day will be $85 per person for transportation and entry/ tour fees. Lunch and driver gratuity are NOT included. Members, please go to the Sign-Up! tab on the Members’ site menu ribbon. Capacity is limited.
Most people associate New York City with the newest, the biggest, the latest … and it’s easy to forget the central role the City played in the earliest days of American history. That’s somewhat more apparent way downtown – where most of the revolutionary action was going on and where the city’s dominant function as a trading port took place. But all of New York played a role in those important early days and there are vestiges of that history throughout the entire City – but perhaps most spectacularly far uptown. These uptown sites – HAMILTON GRANGE, the MORRIS-JUMEL Mansion, the DYCKMAN FARMHOUSE and the VAN CORTLANDT MANSION – all have individual stories to tell about the unique personalities and period associated with them.
The HAMILTON GRANGE (National Memorial) is the actual home built by Alexander Hamilton on his 32-acre farm (“grange”) in upper Manhattan in 1802. Its original location was somewhere on what we would now call 143rd Street between Convent Avenue and Hamilton Place where it’s high, expansive siting allowed for beautiful and strategic views of both the East and Hudson Rivers. It was built about ten years before New York instituted its famous grid plan (in 1811) on what was open farmland. But 85 years after his duel with Aaron Burr and resulting death in 1804, the building was decrepit and in foreclosure. At that time, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church wanted to move uptown from Greenwich Village. They purchased Hamilton Grange and moved it (the first time!) several blocks southeast to what became 287 Convent Avenue – now an empty lot. The building was squeezed onto the new lot by removing the porches and architectural detail and repositioning it 45° – so the main entrance was parallel with the lot line and boarded up. Not too long later the congregation built a larger church building along the house’s southern edge, actually wrapping it partway around Hamilton’s home. By the time a six-story building was put up in 1906 along the Grange’s northern edge, it was completely closed in and inaccessible.
In 2006, almost exactly 100 years later, the Grange was now owned by the National Parks Service and in a feat of breathtaking urban engineering and after years of arguments between neighborhood groups, preservationists, local and national politicians, the building was moved again. It was elevated 35 feet so it was actually higher than the loggia of the church next door – at which point it was moved OVER the loggia, 50 feet westward, onto Convent Avenue. Then it travelled south on Convent and East on 141st St – only about 500 feet – to its current location in St Nicholas Park at the foot of City College. As it happens this site is within the original confines of Hamilton’s property and the building – for the first time in over 120 years – is now visible from all four sides. The porches have been restored and the grand, main, entrance is again apparent. Architectural purists complain that the siting is incorrect – that the main entrance should be facing southwest as it did in the original location – but for cryin’ out loud, most of us are thrilled that this amazing piece of New York history is now accessible to us all.
Pre-dating the Hamilton Grange by about 35 years and perhaps more significant for New York’s Revolutionary War history is the MORRIS-JUMEL MANSION, 20 blocks uptown. It is the oldest house in Manhattan and has the peculiar distinction of having served as the headquarters for both the British and the American military during the revolution. Like the original site of Hamilton Grange, it was situated at a very high point on our island – a perfect place from which to view troop movements. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote significant portions of the Broadway musical Hamilton while sitting in the Morris-Jumel living room. He felt there was no better place to soak up New York’s revolutionary aura.
The house was built in 1765 by a British Military officer, Roger Morris, for himself and his American wife (who was reputed to be a former romantic interest of George Washington’s) and they stayed there until the outbreak of war in 1775. In one of his several strategic retreats, Washington went there after his crushing defeat in Brooklyn Heights and stayed from September to October in 1776. In 1810, the house was purchased by a French merchant, Stephen Jumel and his wife Eliza. After her husband’s death, Eliza was a very rich widow who decorated the house in a more formal and luxurious Empire style and also in 1834 married Aaron Burr – and divorced him two years later
Venturing still northward – to 204th Street – one can find a very, very old farmhouse tucked above a bustling stretch of Broadway. This is the DYCKMAN FARMOUSE, the oldest remaining farmhouse in Manhattan built in 1785. It was originally part of a 250 acre farm owned by the Dyckman family. It is a very rare example of Dutch-Colonial architecture left in New York.
Crossing over into the Bronx, smack-dab in the middle of New York’s famous Van Cortlandt Park is (you guessed!) the VAN CORTLANDT MANSION – because the park is actually what used to be the family’s estate before it was acquired by the City for park land in 1896. The Van Cortlandts were one of the earliest, Dutch, families in New York and began acquiring property in the Bronx at the end of the 1600’s. -Before the English were here and well before the United States came into being.
The property was used as a wheat plantation and for lumber, milling, operations supplying ever-expanding New York City with building materials. The current house was commissioned in 1748 and its Georgian style, the scale of the house and the use of expensive fieldstone speaks to the family’s wealth. Its location, then as now, between Broadway and the Post Road was a strategic one during the Revolutionary War. Like the Morris-Jumel mansion it was used by both the British and the Colonial armies. Both George Washington and his nemesis, British General Sir William Howe, are known to have stayed in the house.
The Van Cortlandt Mansion is a favorite for its astonishing collection of furniture and decorative pieces – many original to the house. Van Cortlandt Park is the City’s third largest park (after Central and Prospect Parks) and is famous for its recreational facilities – most notably the “Vannie” cross country trails used for training by teams from all over the country.
So, by the end of our uptown tour we will have visited four historic homes and just over 100 years of New York City history encompassing everything from its Dutch origins to its Revolutionary War history to its post-war emergence as a city of wealth and power. For die-hard Manhattan-ites who rarely go north of 96th or 125th Streets, this will be a great way to embrace the history of the entire city.