Full disclosure: I am not a bandwagon kind of girl. I still haven’t read the Harry Potter series, seen Star Wars (I know!), or slogged through anything resembling America’s Got Talent. So it surprises even me to admit that although I’ve never actually seen Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s much-ballyhooed Broadway ode to a certain Founding Father, I’m officially obsessed with the soundtrack. Like, listen-to-it-on-repeat-all-day-while-singing-to-myself obsessed. In fact, its songs have brought me to tears on more than one occasion. Haven’t heard it? No matter. It’s on Spotify, and you can enjoy it completely without seeing the show, as the entire story line is communicated verbally.
While I (ahem) missed my shot at seeing the play on Broadway before decamping New York City for Colorado 18 months ago, I’m glad I had the chance to do something even better, for true Hamilton nerds like myself. I hung out at his house: the Hamilton Grange National Memorial, which Alexander built in Harlem on a grassy knoll (which now overlooks dingy apartment buildings). This historic spot offers tours run by the good people at the U.S. National Park Service. And it’s totally free—something no one will ever be able to say about Mr. Miranda’s opus.
I’m not arguing to keep every ye olde structure, but I’d make a case for preserving the grand and legendary when possible—and the Grange is both.
Even two centuries ago, living in New York City wasn’t cheap. Our man Alexander—who grew up an orphan in abject poverty on the Caribbean island of Nevis and bootstrapped himself to graduate from King’s College (now Columbia University), write most of The Federalist Papers, and become the first U.S. secretary of the treasury (but you already knew that)—went deep into debt to build the house in 1802. But let me tell you (having visited at least thrice), this place was completely worth going into arrears over. For starters: Hamilton surrounded the formerly 32-acre estate with 13 sweet gum trees, an affectionate nod to the first states; even today, the leafy grounds offer a temperate reprieve from the concrete jungle. The structure itself, a two-story Federalist-style abode with piazzas on either side ideal for sipping sweet tea and watching fireflies dance, reflects perfect, timeless symmetry. It’s so timeless, in fact, it could have been torn from the latest issue of Veranda magazine.
The effect of all this storied stateliness on my old soul cannot be overstated. New York City is in many ways constantly kowtowing to what’s new and next—as evidenced by the ever-present cranes that rise on every other block. If you’ve ever seen images of the old Penn Station—which by all accounts was even prettier than Grand Central, before it was ripped down to make way for an architectural blot—you know exactly what I mean. I’m not arguing to keep every ye olde structure, but I’d certainly make a case for preserving the grand and legendary when possible, and the Grange is both. Buildings like it make New York New York. Picture Paris, or Venice, or Rome without their (back)storied buildings and what do you have? Just another Nowheresville.
While in Harlem, here’s more to eat, drink, and do.
Moved to its current site in St. Nicholas Park (still well within the boundaries of Hamilton’s original plot of land) in 2011, the Grange is a portal for time travel. I always loved to stroll in on a particularly dank summer afternoon to find myself in the chilled bosom of history. The eye-poppingly ornate structure was, according to some scholars, meant to raise a certain finger at Thomas Jefferson and his Monticello. (Note, for example, the butter yellow dining room that would have maximized candle glow and cast dinner party guests in ravishing splendor, and the original fortepiano, made by Clementi.)
Though Hamilton himself only lived on the property for two short years, owing to a certain fiery temper and an equally fiery Aaron Burr (Whyyy were duels such a thing back then? Somebody explain this to me), his home will live on forever as a national treasure, but also as a treasure for New York City. On the expert-led tour, you’ll see his belongings aplenty, including the silver wine cooler gifted to him by some guy named George Washington. When you go, bring a picnic from a nearby bodega to enjoy on the adjacent hillock, but do please leave your dueling pistols at home.
Kathryn O’Shea-Evans is a Colorado-based writer for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. Follow her on Instagram @kathrynosheaevans. She previously wrote about the bathroom at the Frick Collection and Tender Buttons.