Thursday, March 27, 2008

Hamilton Heights To Lose Its Namesake

Hamilton Heights To Lose Its Namesake
Abroad in New York
March 27, 2008

History buffs have long bemoaned the sad setting of Hamilton Grange, Alexander Hamilton's onetime Harlem home; it is nestled and blocked in such a way that we have no sense of the spacious grounds it enjoyed when New York's own founding father and his wife, Elizabeth, resided there. To general applause, the Federal-style house, normally operated by the National Park Service as a historic house museum, is currently closed for repairs and restoration. When completed, it will move to nearby St. Nicholas Park, where the house will be fully visible and appear once again to be the country house it was when built.

Hamilton Grange is the namesake of its uptown enclave Hamilton Heights. The house was built in 1802 as Hamilton's public career was on the wane and he felt need of reclusion. At the time, what would later be Convent Avenue at 143rd Street (once the streets were platted and cut through) was the distant countryside. Alas, Hamilton could not simply retire to the country. In the state's gubernatorial race of 1804, Hamilton spoke out against candidate Aaron Burr, the vice president of the United States who decided he'd be happier as Governor of New York. When gurr felt Hamilton — the two men, both brilliant, had been on a collision course since both served under General Washington in 1776 — had gone too far, they fought their infamous duel, on July 11, 1804, in which Hamilton was killed. So he really didn't get to spend much time up at the Grange.

Nonetheless, this house is our most tangible reminder of Hamilton, a man who was a New Yorker to the bone — and the only one of the founders, according to the historian Paul Johnson, fully entitled to the accolade of genius.

In 1889, the congregation of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Greenwich Village decided it was time to move uptown, and the newly developing area of the upper Upper West Side looked promising. The congregation's first uptown services were actually held in Hamilton Grange, which came with the land St. Luke's purchased. The church had moved the house two blocks south, to just north of 141st Street on Convent Avenue, to make way for a profitable row house development. St. Luke's then erected its handsome "Richardsonian Romanesque" church (1892–95, R.H. Robertson) at the northeast corner of Convent and 141st.

I asked Manhattan Borough Historian Michael Miscione what he thought of the forthcoming move, scheduled for sometime in 2009, and he said: "I consider the Grange move the number one historic preservation priority in the metropolitan region, bar none. It is a century overdue. All New Yorkers — indeed, all Americans — should be ashamed that it has taken this long to give the Grange a fitting home."

But won't the move take something away from Hamilton Heights? No. Hamilton Heights will remain what it has been since the early 20th century: one of the most delicious enclaves in Manhattan.

The setting is stupendous: a high bluff overlooking the Harlem plain. Half a block to the east of St. Luke's — which sidles rhythmically down the bluff — is the three-block-long Hamilton Terrace. It's on axis with City College's majestic Shepard Hall, at 140th Street. City College moved from Lexington Avenue at 23rd Street to a magnificent Collegiate Gothic campus. George B. Post's buildings at City College contrast a dark Manhattan schist, which comes from the site, with bright white terra-cotta trim and ornamentation — a startling contrast that enhances the otherworldly allure of these buildings at the foot of Hamilton Terrace. Hamilton Terrace boasts marvelous row houses at numbers 4 to 30, built in 1898 and designed by Neville & Bagge, one of New York's outstanding architectural firms, though known for apartment buildings. The modern apartment building (1948–51) at 19 Hamilton Terrace was designed by Vertner Tandy, the first African-American registered as an architect in New York State. Back on Convent Avenue are many very fine row houses, such as the exciting neo-Renaissance row of seven houses right across the avenue from Hamilton Grange. These were built in 1899–1902 and designed by the inventive though little-known Henri Fouchaux.

Just to the west of Convent on 142nd Street stands the highly unusual Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, a Roman Catholic church built in 1902–04. The O'Reilly Brothers recycled pieces of recently demolished buildings to make the church.

The main part of the façade was salvaged from Peter B. Wight's National Academy of Design, which stood on Park Avenue South at 24th Street from 1863 to 1900. Its "Ruskinian Gothic" style made it one of the most influential 19th-century buildings in New York. Inside, we see bits, including stained-glass windows, from the original east end of St. Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. These became available when the cathedral's Lady Chapel began to be built in 1901. It's not orthodox preservation, but there is something touching about parts of superannuated buildings migrating to the then newest neighborhood uptown.

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