RAY SUAREZ: How do you save a historic place when the place itself has already changed beyond recognition, but the history is vital to remember?
This spring and summer, a founding father’s home was moved to save it, to link a long ago past to a very different present.
Sixty years ago, when the country was changing very fast, Virginia Lee Burton wrote a children’s story about the way places change called “The Little House.” The story starts on a green hill.
“Once upon a time, there was a little house way out in the country. She was a pretty little house, and she was strong and well-built. The man who built her so well said, ‘This little house shall never be sold for gold or silver, and she will live to see our great-great-grandchildren’s great-great-grandchildren living in her.'”
When you’re a reporter, you’re constantly being reminded context is important. But if you’re a student of history, especially urban history, it’s the context itself that’s constantly in motion.
Alexander Hamilton, founding father, signer of the Constitution, and the first secretary of the Treasury built the house he called the Grange on his farmland in Upper Manhattan in 1801. Like Virginia Lee Burton’s little house, the Grange was way out in the country, a pretty house, strong and well-built.
Back then, New York City was 10 miles to the south, still small, but on its way to becoming the commercial capital of the young nation. It took hours to ride here on horseback. Today, the subway ride from Wall Street to Hamilton’s country house takes about a half-an-hour.
Hamilton only lived in the house he called his “sweet project” for two years, until his death in a duel in 1804. As the 19th century marched on, Thomas Jefferson’s dream of an America of yeoman farmers gave way to Hamilton’s dream of the power of finance and factory, of the hectic hustle of a New York where the world poured in, and eventually surrounded his farmhouse.
In the book, the little house is happy for a long time. As farms and homes fill in around her, Burton tells us, “Day followed day, each one a little different from before, but the little house stayed the same.”
Burton’s little house was surrounded, as well, as apartment houses and tenement houses, schools, stores, and garages spread over the land and crowded around her.
Hamilton’s little house was moved once, as the neighborhood filled with new buildings, and even at its new site was hemmed in by later construction. As a national historic site, it, too, could not be bought for gold or silver. But after 200 years, it also needed serious repair that couldn’t be done at the current site.
But how do you move a house that can no longer be simply slid out of place? The late 19th-century porch, or loggia, of a church now stood between the Grange and the street.
Remarkably, Hamilton’s little house was lifted 40 feet into the air, up and over the loggia of St. Luke’s Episcopal, and onto Convent Avenue, for the two-block trip through closed Manhattan streets to a new foundation in St. Nicholas Park, where it will be repaired and re-opened.
Even the smallest error could have broken the fragile structure into pieces. After it was slowly lifted, it had to be equally slowly lowered before its trip to the park.
Virginia Lee Burton wrote, “They jacked up the little house and put her on wheels. Traffic was held up for hours, as they slowly moved her out of the city. A cellar was dug on top of the hill, and slowly they moved the house from the road to the hill. As the little house settled down on her new foundation, she smiled happily.”
Burton’s little house had to flee the city in order to be happy again. But 230 years after Alexander Hamilton came to New York to make his fortune, all the Grange needed was a new context.
And thanks to an engineering tour de force, it got one. It will soon sit on a new foundation in a green park and be thrown open to a new century’s visitors, who will come to visit Hamilton’s sweet little project.