Saturday, April 2, 2011

Manhattan Country Estates

During most of the 18th and 19th Centuries there were a lot of them, bosky retreats of the privileged perched above the East and North Rivers, comfortably removed from the filthy city to the south. As that spreading city thundered up Manhattan Island, one after another of the old places was steamrollered under the geometric street grid of the Commissioners' Plan of 1811. Today only three are left, which when you think about it, is actually quite remarkable.

By later standards, neither the houses nor the "estates" on which they stood were all that big. Alexander Hamilton's 32-acre spread in today's West 140s was probably among the larger. He bought the land in 1799, finished the house (designed by John McComb Jr. and called the Grange after his grandfather's Scottish estate) in 1802, and was shot dead by Aaron Burr in 1804. The image above shows the house sometime in the early 19th Century, when it was still far off in the country. McComb's delicate design - all gentle symmetry and restrained decoration - is typical of the country places that once lent a air of distinction and sophistication to the craggy landscape of northern Manhattan.

In 1889, St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Greenwich Village decided to relocate to fast developing northern Manhattan. They bought the Hamilton property, subdivided it into a little over 1000 lots, and moved the house - then standing roughly on the south side of today's 143rd Street and Hamilton Place (not Hamilton Terrace) - to a new location on Convent Avenue between 141st and 142nd Streets. It was used for services until 1895 when the new church next door was completed. The image above, with what looks like urban construction in the background, probably shows the Grange just before it was moved. The fence on the right surrounds a circle of 13 trees, commemorating the original 13 colonies, and planted by Hamilton himself.

The new Romanesque Revival church looks about to swallow the old Grange whole in this early twentieth century photo. In order to fit on the lot, the house was turned sideways and the original entry facade pressed against the side of the church. This necessitated sheering off the entry porch, blocking up the old front door and apparently grafting the original entry porch onto the side porch that now faced Convent Ave. A new entrance to the house was cut into the wall of this porch, necessitating a bit of interior bollixing.

Years passed; an apartment house went up next door; McComb's delicate balustrades either fell off or were pulled off.

In 1960 Hamilton Grange became a National Historic Landmark, but by the end of the century it was looking pretty beat up. Now go back to the post above (thanks).

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