The idea is to restore Alexander Hamilton’s country home, the Grange, to a state that Hamilton himself would recognize.
The question is: Would he be able to find the front door?
This spring, the National Park Service plans to move the Grange from a cramped nook on Convent Avenue to a far more generous setting in a hillside corner of nearby St. Nicholas Park in Upper Manhattan.
In doing so, the service will swing the house around to face West 141st Street. That means that the Grange’s front door will end up oriented northeast rather than southwest, as was intended by Hamilton and his architect, John McComb Jr., when the home was completed in 1802.
This is a grave concern to some preservationists, who believe the government is squandering a chance to authentically restore the home of a towering founding father.
“It’s Preservation 101 that the house should be retained in its original orientation,” said Ron Melichar, president of the Harlem Heights-West Harlem Community Preservation Organization. Orientation affects not only the exterior appearance but the way that light plays within the house’s octagonal parlor and dining room.
Darren Boch, a spokesman for the park service, said a southwest orientation “would defy common aesthetic sense” because it would leave the house facing the steep ridge from which City College rises.
“To the greatest degree possible, we’re trying to retrieve what has been lost to history: the character of Hamilton’s home as a freestanding mansion,” Mr. Boch said. He added, “The reasons for McComb’s orientation had to do with views and natural light, neither of which can be replicated, regardless of orientation, on the new site.”
Of course, there is a chance that visitors will be misled into thinking that the house was designed to front 141st Street, even though the gridiron street plan was drawn up a decade after the Grange was built. If the house instead turned its back on the street, there could be no such mistaken assumptions.
There may be more accommodating spots in the 23-acre park, but the 141st Street corner is particularly appropriate because it was once part of Hamilton’s estate, meaning that there is a 200-year-old connection between the building and its new setting.
One could argue that the Grange and the neighborhood around it are so transformed that orientation is scarcely a defining characteristic any longer. Or one could say, as preservationists do, that because so many changes have taken place, the government is obliged to maintain whatever original qualities can be preserved.
The case of the Grange illustrates an abiding tension in preservation between accommodating the public (in the interest of exposing as many people as possible to a historical structure) and striving for pinpoint accuracy.
The Grange is especially important because it is both a city landmark and a national memorial, a rare survivor from a time when Upper Manhattan was largely farmland, and a tremendous — though often overlooked — cultural resource in Harlem. It is the only surviving home associated with Hamilton.
More than just a pretty face on a $10 bill, Hamilton served in the Revolutionary War, wrote many of the Federalist Papers, served as the first secretary of the Treasury and founded the Bank of New York and The New York Post.
He was mortally wounded in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804. The house was acquired in 1889 by St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and moved two blocks south to its current site at 287 Convent Avenue, abutting the church. The entrance was moved to one side of the house. It came under park service stewardship in 1962.
The missing original entranceway, the front and back porches and other architectural features are to be restored as part of the $8.2 million project. When the house reopens to the public in the fall, it will occupy a verdant setting, visible from all four sides, for the first time in 119 years.
“Even given the differences of opinion on orientation, it’s going to be a happy day for the house when it finally moves,” said Adrian Benepe, commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation Department, which supports the park service plan.
So does the Landmarks Preservation Commission, saying that “the orientation of the house relates to its original siting as a mansion on a promontory.”
Robert B. Tierney, the commission chairman, is left with only one small concern.
“When the ghost of Alexander Hamilton returns to the Grange,” Mr. Tierney said, “I hope he doesn’t go in the back door by mistake.”
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