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New York's Roadside Attractions

Hamilton Grange

Hamilton Grange
Credit: above, Erik Bryan; below, Missy Yearian

This week we’re introducing a new column, “New York’s Roadside Attractions,” in which TMN Editor Erik Bryan travels to historical homes around the five boroughs and, among other things, tries to get historical re-enactors to break character and submit to an interview.

The weekend of Sept. 17 the Hamilton Grange was being rededicated to coincide with Constitution Day. I won’t condescend to tell you who Alexander Hamilton was or why he’s such a big deal for the United States; we all know him principally as the founder of the New York Post. However, the Grange, for the uninitiated, was supposedly his dream home, his Xanadu. The home, which Hamilton referred to as his “sweet project”—which he most presumably followed with “bro”—was built in 1802 in what is today the Hamilton Heights neighborhood in Harlem.

The home was being rededicated and reopened to the public because it’s been closed since 2006. Between then and now, the home had been renovated and moved from Convent Avenue to St. Nicholas Park a few blocks away on 141st Street. It had been moved the first time in 1889 because St. Luke’s Episcopal Church had bought the profitable land on which it sat to use for row houses. In the park it’s more out in the open, as it was in 1802, and it’s still on the original 32 acres that Hamilton owned.

To celebrate the rededication, the National Park Service held a grand event that included musicians, lectures, and costumed historical re-enactors, many of whom were absolutely dedicated to plying a bygone trade. There was a blacksmith, for instance, and a group of New England chocolate-makers. Apparently before 1900, the only form chocolate came in was hot, as in the beverage. I tried some made the old-fashioned way, and while delicious, it made my tummy hurt.

I spoke with a re-enactor who was performing as a member of the Rhode Island Regiment of the Continental Army. He talked Revolutionary War with me for a bit, mostly citing battles and dates where his regiment was involved. I eventually got him to drop character and tell me his name and a little of how he came into the biz. Leon told me he was “a media specialist,” to which he rolled his own eyes before leveling with me: “a librarian” at a university in Trenton. From there Leon decided to go into teaching, and he actually earned credits toward his Master’s by participating in historical re-enactments. He’s part of a group that contracts with the NPS. They get called up every so often to make what appearances they can. “More like a militia than a standing army,” I said, to which he smiled in agreement. (I was too timid, guiltily white as I am, to broach the subject of his race—African American—and the historical accuracy of his participation in these re-enactments, but according to Wikipedia, the Rhode Islanders were sometimes known as the “Black Regiment” because they had some of the first companies of African Americans.)

The musicians playing when I arrived were playing calypso, of a sort, because Hamilton was born on the Caribbean island of Nevis. The next act was a small group of musicians playing your basic fife-and-fiddle stuff, “Music of the American Colonies,” according to the brochure. However, the bandleader introduced several songs by noting, “This is a family-friendly song about love, betrayal, revenge, and murder.” Scattered laughter in the audience, and he continued, “They didn’t have TV or radio back then, so they mostly sat around trying to sing the most entertaining songs they could come up with.” Fair enough.

I waited in line to go into the home itself. The Grange was named for Hamilton’s grandfather’s home in Scotland. A Hamilton re-enactor walked up and down the line, answering questions put to him by the public. I was amused both by the crowd’s willingness to play along with the charade, and the Hamilton performer’s dedication. While I have no basis of comparison, he’s probably the best Hamilton impersonator there is. The guy never broke character, not that I saw, and he definitely knew his stuff. Most people wanted to ask about Aaron Burr, of course, and I found myself getting the slightest of tingles to hear this impersonator go stone-cold and declare that, “Mr. Jefferson and I disagreed over much, but at the very least he was a man of integrity. Mr. Burr, however, only ever showed self-interest.” I don’t know if Hamilton himself ever said that verbatim, but I’ll probably always remember him saying as much. I tried to get a more up-close-and-personal interview with “Hamilton,” but he was pretty much mobbed.

I was actually surprised by the mix of the crowd. Hamilton would probably have been proud to know that we were a real melting pot there on that day, young and old, black and white. A pair of young college girls acted like “Hamilton” was a rock star. They practically squealed when he walked by and asked to hug him. I mean, really nerdy college girls, sure, but cute. He offered his hand saying, “I think this would be more decorous,” as his wifely re-enactor, “Elizabeth,” looked on.

The house itself is nothing special. By Manhattan standards it’s a mansion, a huge, two-story Federal style home. You’d have to have, like, eight friends to rent it with, easy. The study, salon, and dining rooms were done up as they may have looked at the time. The rest of the rooms, what visitors were allowed to see at least, were covered in plaques and panels telling all that was noblest of Hamilton’s life, service, and his legacy to America.

I strolled back outside, receiving a free pocket copy of the U.S. Constitution supplied by the park rangers. I plan to carry it regularly should an argument break out. I wandered over to an older woman working at a spinning wheel. After watching her at work for a minute, she told me, “It’s not going to bite you.” I chuckled and moved closer to speak with her. “It’s an addiction,” Dixie revealed. “I never had much skill for knitting or needlepoint, but I took to spinning and weaving. Now I can’t give it up.” She wore a beautiful, star-patterned scarf of her own handiwork. She kept spinning throughout our conversation. I learned that Dixie lived over near the Delaware Water Gap, an hour-and-a-half drive from the city. She’s a regular employee of the NPS, and like Leon, whenever called, she tries to make it out to events like this. She showed me a collection of the finished yarn she’d made of that day’s dyed wool. My favorite was a sea green spindle infused with blues. She was planning on making a sweater or two for winter, she explained.

“Hamilton” was due to speak as I left, but I was starving. I wandered downhill from the Grange, past a group of teenagers playing half-court basketball, and back onto St. Nicholas Ave. to catch the A train downtown.

biopic

TMN Editor Erik Bryan, though originally from Florida, left New Orleans in 2005 for higher ground. He occasionally enjoys a game of croquet, a glass of gin, smarting off, and not freezing to death in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. More by Erik Bryan

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