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In Upper Manhattan, two historic houses fete Alexander Hamilton’s birthday

What would you give your dad on his 258th birthday? For Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, it will be a couple of open houses in upper Manhattan.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by American painter John Trumbull (1756-1843)
Public domain, Wikimedia Commons
Built in 1802, Alexander Hamilton's former estate, the Hamilton Grange, is today a house museum in Harlem's St. Nicholas Park.
©2012 by Eric K. Washington

Born on January 11, 1755, on the Caribbean island of Nevis, Alexander Hamilton, ascended from humble beginnings to become one of the most influential figures in United States’ history. He was a protégé of the country’s first president, George Washington. But in his own right, Hamilton was a distinguished statesman, soldier, economist, newspaper founder, lawyer and the nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. A scandalous extra-marital affair clouded his reputation; a political rivalry led to his violent death. Talk enough to fill two houses at the very least.

Commemoration at the Hamilton Grange

On Saturday, January 12, Alexander Hamilton’s birthday looms over two great uptown houses. As one would guess, the Hamilton Grange National Memorial will toast its original owner on West 141st Street between Convent and St. Nicholas Avenues. But a concurrent tribute will take place at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, at West 160th Street between St. Nicholas and Edgecombe Avenues.

The National Park Service (NPS) has invited Rand Scholet, founder and president of the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society, to discuss the late patriot. Scholet’s talk, “Alexander Hamilton: Washington’s Indispensable Partner,” will be at 11 a.m. Following it, at 12:30 p.m., an NPS Ranger presentation called “Hamilton’s Caribbean” will examine how Hamilton’s obscure West Indian childhood experiences foreshadowed his prominent American destiny.

Also being celebrated is Hamilton’s Federal-style manse known as The Grange. Built by Hamilton himself in 1802--after designs by John McComb Jr., who soon afterward became a co-architect of City Hall--the house is the only one he is known to have owned. But his tenure there was cut short when Aaron Burr, a political rival, mortally wounded him in a gun duel at Weehawken, New Jersey, (since dueling was illegal in New York) in 1804.

In June 2008, the NPS removed the house from around the corner on Convent Avenue to its present location at St. Nicholas Park’s north end. Conservators restored the original symmetry to the former country homestead, which remains the winsome centerpiece of Harlem’s namesake section of Hamilton Heights.

The site will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The NPS will offer tours of the furnished rooms every hour, except for during the two open-house hours from noon to 1 p.m. and from 3 to 4 p.m. The last admittances to the Grange’s historically-furnished second floor is at 4 p.m, but the exhibit gallery remains open until 5pm. For more information, visit the Hamilton Grange website or call 646-548-2310.

Celebration at the Morris-Jumel Mansion

A mile farther uptown from The Grange, the historic Morris-Jumel Mansion (MJM) claims its own Hamilton connection. “We know he was here on July 10th, 1790, for the Cabinet Dinner George Washington hosted,” Carol Ward, the site's Director of Education and Public Programs, says. “People should be aware of it because around that table were the ‘big guns’ of the Revolutionary War--Washington, [John] Adams, [Thomas] Jefferson, Hamilton and Henry Knox.”

Manhattan’s oldest house, the Morris-Jumel Mansion (today a house museum) was built in 1765 by British officer Roger Morris. The American Revolution thrust the vacated house into prominence when, in 1776, General George Washington lived (and really did sleep) there. It was Battle of Harlem Heights of that period when Washington first met Hamilton.

But the most storied resident of the house lived there from 1810 to 1865: Eliza Jumel, who later married Hamilton’s nemesis Aaron Burr.

“Can Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr make peace for one day?” an MJM event announcement somewhat tongue-in-cheekily ponders. Burr dispatched Hamilton with a gun shot, after all, then some thirty years later he lodged in the mansion more definitively than a dinner guest.

“Aaron Burr moves in in 1833,” Ward says. “So the house, and its inhabitants, are strangely connected through a version of 6 degrees of separation.”

At 1pm, Jimmy Napoli will discuss his hero in a talk called “Alexander Hamilton: The Little Lion.” A Hamilton Tour Guide, Napoli appeared among numerous historians in the PBS documentary series “American Experience: Alexander Hamilton” a few seasons ago.

“The first time George Washington sees Hamilton, he's putting together an earthwork,” Napoli said on the program. “While the rest of the Continental Army is crying, weeping over what happened in Brooklyn, Hamilton is organizing and getting things together.”

But in honor of his 258th birthday this year, others will be pulling it together for Alexander Hamilton.

The commemorative programs at both historic sites are free, but the Morris-Jumel Mansion requires visitors to make advance registration at 212.923.8008.