Alexander Hamilton’s Final New York Home, The Grange & The Mythical Legend Of Its 13 Trees
With A Description Of Hamilton’s Grange In 1872
In New York City where “preservation” can be a dirty word, an impediment standing in the way of “progress,” it is miraculous that Alexander Hamilton’s home, The Grange, still exists.
Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton and the subsequent smash musical Hamilton by Lin Manuel Miranda, spurred an awareness and appreciation to a long dead founding father. Alexander Hamilton has been firmly reestablished in the pantheon of great Americans.
Alexander Hamilton’s original property of about 30 acres once stretched from about Tenth (Amsterdam) Avenue to St. Nicholas Avenue and from 138th to 145th Street. Hamilton’s Grange built between 1801 and 1802, had been threatened with demolition many times over its 200 plus year existence. The Grange was moved from its original location, not once, but twice.
As described in an 1872 Appleton’s article (reprinted at the end of our story), the author takes note that the house had survived late into the 19th century and should continue well into the 20th century.
“(The Grange) is constructed in the most substantial manner, and is good for a century yet, if the exigencies of city improvement do not demand its destruction.”
Those exigencies did arise a few years later. Hamilton’s home was first moved a couple of blocks south and a half block east in 1889. Real estate development had the Grange in the path of the street grid, laid out in 1811, which had slowly but steadily worked its way north to upper Manhattan.
After the move the Grange remained safe for the time being, but there was the matter of its famous group of trees, supposedly planted by Alexander Hamilton. The story was recounted by the Appleton’s article:
“A grove of thirteen stately gum-trees on the lawn in front of the mansion, which were planted by General Hamilton in token of the union and perpetuity of the thirteen original States of the republic. The beautiful star-like leaf of this tree rendered it peculiarly appropriate for the purpose.”
By March 1892 the Amos Cotting estate which now owned the parcel of land where the trees stood at Amsterdam Avenue and Convent Avenue between 142nd and 143rd Streets was set to be auctioned off. Destruction of the trees seemed imminent.
Wealthy businessman Orlando B. Potter bought the tracts of land where the trees stood for $140,500 and vowed to preserve the grove.
There was only one problem which seems to have escaped most historians notice, even up to this day – the trees were probably not planted by Alexander Hamilton.
In a March 23, 1892 letter to the New York Times immediately after Potter bought the Hamilton tree lot, William Wood shared his story about how “his faith was suddenly and authoritatively overthrown” years ago about the veracity of Hamilton planting thirteen trees at the Grange.
In 1882 Wood was at a meeting of the St. Andrew’s Society at which John C. Hamilton (1792-1882), the only living son of Alexander Hamilton was in attendance. John Hamilton told Wood that Alexander Hamilton had been a member of the St. Andrew’s Society. Hamilton wanted the society’s help in erecting a granite statue to his father in Central Park. The conversation with Wood turned to the Grange and the thirteen trees which Wood said he admired and was happy that they were preserved.
John Hamilton then shocked Wood by saying, “Well, Mr. Wood I am sorry to tell you that those trees were not planted by my father; they were there when he bought the place.”
John C. Hamilton’s son, also named Alexander Hamilton, the grandson of Major-General Hamilton was unconvinced. Hamilton wrote a letter submitted to the Times in 1897 saying that his grandmother Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton had told him that the thirteen trees were in fact lime trees and taken from General Washington’s estate in Mt Vernon, VA. when they were little whips and indeed planted by his grandfather. Hamilton also swore his father John C. Hamilton had never told him any story to the contrary.
While both stories are hearsay evidence, grandson Hamilton’s story is several generations removed from the events. Wood’s encounter with 89-year-old John Hamilton bears slightly more weight on these simple facts: the trees in question were not lime trees but gum trees, and native to that area of Manhattan. Plus John Hamilton was actually there when the house was purchased.
Regardless of the trees origin, Orlando Potter died in 1894 and his estate continued to preserve the trees. But by 1900 the trees were all severely damaged or dying. In 1911 the trees had been reduced to stumps by vandals and relic hunters. Finally the plot containing the trees was sold to the Sisters of St Ursula of the Blessed Virgin. What remained of the trees was taken down and a convent was built on the site.
After decades of neglect and indifference, in 2008 the Grange was moved for a second time to its safe and hopefully permanent home in St. Nicholas Park. After a three year restoration, Hamilton’s Grange was reopened to the public in 2011.
Here is how the reporter from Appleton’s Journal described Hamilton and the Grange in 1872.
The Grange the residence of Major-General Alexander Hamilton of Revolutionary memory, is situated in the northern part of Manhattan Island, a little more than a mile from Manhattanville. It stands upon high ground that commands a beautiful view of both the East and the North Rivers. The house–a square, wood structure of two stories, with ornamental balustrades and large chimney-stacks—has a solid, substantial look, befitting the character of the man who built it for his home. It is remarkable, in this age of change, and considering its situation, that it remains in a state of almost perfect preservation, but little altered from the condition in which its lamented owner left it on that fatal morning when he went to Weehawken to meet Aaron Burr. While it has remained undisturbed by the spirit of improvement, nearly the whole face of the upper pert of the island has been changed.
One of the remarkable features of the place is a grove of thirteen stately gum-trees on the lawn in front of the mansion, which were planted by General Hamilton in token of the union and perpetuity of the thirteen original States of the republic. The beautiful star-like leaf of this tree rendered it peculiarly appropriate for the purpose. We can imagine that the patriot guarded them with the tenderest care, and watched them as they slowly developed a growth which has finally become as strong and sturdy as that of the young sovereignties of which they were made the emblems. Our artist has given a sketch of these trees, all of which are still standing.
Hamilton’s history and public services are too well known to bear repetition. His continual unselfish devotion to his country’s interests did not add to his own pecuniary advancement, and, when be resigned the secretaryship of the Treasury its 1795, and resumed the practice of his profession in New York, he was a poor man. In a letter which he wrote at this time to his sister, Mrs. Church, in London, be said “I tell you, without regret, what I hope you anticipate, that I am poorer than when I went into office.” He was compelled to work hard to support the position which be was obliged to maintain, and midnight often found him toiling in his office. Said Talleyrand to a friend, after meeting Hamilton at this stage of his career: ” I have beheld one of the wonders of the world. I have seen a man who has made the fortune of a nation laboring all night to support his family.”
During his first year in New York Hamilton lived in a small house in Pine Street, but, as soon as his means would permit, he removed thence to No. 24 Broadway. This was his residence until the year 1802, when he removed to the Grange, which he had built at Manhattanville, then about eight and a half miles from the city. The timber of this house is said to have been a present from his father-in-law, General Philip Schuyler, of Albany. The building is constructed in the most substantial manner, and is good for a century yet, if the exigencies of city improvement do not demand its destruction.
Hamilton named his place in honor of the ancestral seat of his family in Scotland, his father, James Hamilton, having been the fourth son of Alexander Hamilton, of the Grange, Ayrshire. He took great pride in the place, and devoted much time to its embellishment. The arrangement of the grounds, the planting of Sowers, of shrubbery, and of trees, received his personal care and attention. While living here he generally drove to and from the city in a two-wheeled carriage with a single horse. His family at this time consisted of his wife, five sons, and two daughters, and a young lady, the orphan-daughter of Colonel Autle, who was killed in the Revolutionary War. She was educated and treated in all respects as his own daughter. Hamilton had had eight children; but his eldest son, Philip, was killed in a duel, November 24, 1802, on the same ground, it is said, where his father afterward fell.
Thus comfortably settled in the place of his choice, in the midst of sylvan beauty, in the possession of every thing that a refined taste could want, and surrounded by a loving and united family, the patriot had every reason to hope that the arduous labors of the past would be crowned with a peaceful and happy old age. But, alas! in one short hour the light and life of this delightful home was quenched forever.
Hamilton did not die at the Grange, nor was he buried from it. After the duel, he was taken across the river, in an unconscious condition, to the house of Mr. Bayard, where his afflicted family came to receive his last farewells, and where he expired the next day, about two o’clock P.M., July 12, 1804. The funeral took place from the residence of John B. Church, in Robinson Street. Mr. Church was his brother-in-law, having married the eldest daughter of General Schuyler. Hamilton’s remains lie in Trinity Churchyard, where his monument may be seen on the Rector-Street side.
Hamilton’s affairs were much involved at the time of his death. At the close of the Revolution, he invested what little money he had in public lands in some of the northern New-York counties. This proved to be a poor speculation, for the country was settled but slowly, and he never derived any benefit from the purchase. After his decease, the friends of the family, in order to save the Grange for them, advanced money to pay his debts, and took these lands at a higher valuation than their market price. Thus was performed, by private generosity, what ought to have been considered the seared duty of the country. The family continued to reside at the Grange for some years, but it, at length, passed out of their hands. It is now the property of the heirs of the late William G. Ward, who became its owner in 1845.