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house building

May 5, 2013

grange outside

I am supposed to hate Alexander Hamilton; my architectural heart goes to Thomas Jefferson and his agrarian roots and decentralized government. Also Jefferson had great taste. Francophil, avid gardener and damn good stylist (have you seen the front hall of Monticello, the best interior styling of Indian headdresses, antlers, maps and artifacts?). Jefferson was a gifted amateur architect and really did get at some special things at Poplar Forest and Monticello.  But frankly, had I ever misjudged the building of a second floor coming into the middle of a Palladian window or designed storage space only a slave could get to by a ladder as Jefferson did in his design, I would have been fired. So maybe being on Team Alex rather than Team Tom has its advantages. We all could learn to economize as the Secretary of the Treasury did  during the design of our home. Hamilton knew that doors were taxed so all access to the multiple porches have sash windows rather than doors.  Hamilton hired the talented James McComb for his house and there were some unresolved conditions, but mostly there is some very tight inventive architectural geometry that, let’s just say it, Jefferson would envy.  The two octagon shaped rooms coming into a teardrop apse at the center of the floor plan is smart in it’s efficiency and elegant in it’s execution.  I admire Hamilton because he hired an architect and had his wife manage the construction. Oh and also for being an early abolitionist, hum unlike Jefferson, go Team Alex….

Hamilton Grange sits high up on the island of Manhattan, literally – located beyond the Central Park line, in the sumptuous Hamilton Heights/authentic Harlem.  The newly restored building, moved for the second time in its 200 year history is surprisingly masterful in its architecture and typically precise in its restoration.  The building is a memorial site orchestrated to understand the importance of Alexander Hamilton. The decorative object collection is meager, but within the Park Rangers’ stories you get to understand why. Hamilton died two years within the life of the house designed by McComb. Mrs. Hamilton was left with a so called “sweet project” financed by her husband but mainly orchestrated by her. She also had eight children. At every turn of the NPS ranger’s dialogue, I would say to myself, “well hell she had eight children.” Why did the second floor not have designated rooms and prescribed functions in the floor plan? “How can you plan bedrooms with eight children?”   The tour Ranger explained that most of the objects are reproductions and I think” yep- she had eight children, the furniture was either broken or given away when children married and set up homes”.  And newsflash, the dining room was not meant for elegant dinners with heads of state, they had eight children. I could go and on. The knowledge of life is helpful during history tours….

grange detail

The house currently has an odd relationship to its method of telling the story of the house. Hyper-complete historical exhibitions occupy the entire ground floor of the house, so the very interesting lesson of how a house of this scale(actually rather small) and aspiration(grand) was serviced, or the democratic question, where did” the help” live?  It also hides aspects of these spaces where one could have experienced the functional ideas of the house, like two fire hearths and a hidden or discreet staircase for the comings and goings of servants.

The NPS rangers continue to dazzle with their descriptions; on Hamilton’s study “This is essentially the man cave.” On the French style of setting the table, “early advertising,” to have the silversmith’s mark legible. On the Hamilton daughter with a fragile mental state, “she basically lost it.” And on Washington’s gift to Hamilton of a sideboard in an effort to assure Hamilton of his loyalty during a mistress scandal or “for Hamilton having his own sideboard.” Only in upper New York City does history get such candor.

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