Since I moved to New York almost eight years ago, the city’s rich history has held my attention and fueled my imagination. I love exploring the culture of bygone eras through many of the old homes that have been preserved as museums. Here are some of my favorite historical homes in Manhattan.
Alexander Hamilton built this Federalist style home for his family in 1802 on what is now 143rd Street, when Harlem still had enough green space to be considered a country retreat. Unfortunately, Hamilton only lived here for two years before his infamous death by duel with Aaron Burr. The Grange stayed in Hamilton’s family for some time but by 1889, it had gotten in the way of Manhattan’s new street grid infrastructure. It was condemned for demolition but saved thanks to the intervention of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Then in 2009, the National Park Service moved the Grange—it was literally lifted up, rolled over the top of a neighboring church, lowered onto hydraulic dollies and rolled through the streets of Harlem—to its permanent home in St. Nicolas Park. A good place to start touring the Grange is on the first floor, which gives the highlights of the life and accomplishments of one of America’s most famous immigrants. Among other things, he established the fleet of ships which evolved into the modern day Coast Guard, he established the U.S. dollar as standard currency, and he was the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. The second floor is more personal and features elaborate period architecture, and shows Hamilton’s life as he would have lived it with his family on a daily basis. You can also watch the video of how the house was rolled through the streets of Harlem. Map
My ancestors left Italy in the early 1900s and arrived at Ellis Island looking to start new lives along with hundreds of thousands other immigrants who had made similar journeys. The Tenement Museum tells a handful of those stories. Built in 1863 as a residential tenement, it was condemned in the 1930s as a fire hazard. Families were given little warning and had to leave immediately, leaving many of their belongings behind. The building was shuttered for almost 50 years, and when it was rediscovered, it was like a time capsule full of stories about the people who came in search of a better future. Several apartments have been restored to highlight the day to day immigrant life in a crowded tenement. Much of the building’s original structures were preserved intact, others have been restored to nearly original form. Visits are available by scheduled tour only and a variety of tours options are available. My favorite tour is Hard Times, where visitors walk through the apartments of the German-Jewish Gumpertz family, and the Baldizzi’s, who came from Italy. I also enjoyed Irish Outsiders, where we learn about the Moore family’s struggles as one of the only Irish families in a neighborhood that was known then as Kleindeutschland (Little Germany). Several walking tours of the neighborhood are also available. In my experience, you can’t go wrong at the Tenement Museum. The tour guides are consistently engaging and passionate and after each tour, I leave feeling like I’ve gotten to know the families whose apartments I visited. Original source documents such as manifestos from Ellis Island are passed around to enhance the authenticity of the experience. Many of those documents are available on their website (great for teachers), they also have a fascinating photo archive, and a calendar of events that focus on the themes of immigration, gender, and minority empowerment. Map
If you have ever wondered what it was like to be a wealthy 19th century New Yorker, the Tredwell family home will give you some idea. Seabury Tredwell spent three decades in the hardware business and then in 1835 retired, wealthy, to a stately mansion in the East Village. It’s not the oldest residence in New York (see below—that honor goes to MJM), but by the time Seabury’s youngest daughter Gertrude died in 1933, it had been continually lived in by the family for almost 100 years. Also to set this home in a class of its own is the original and stunningly well-preserved furniture and fixtures that inhabit all three floors. A pair of elaborate marble-topped tables sit in the parlor where Mrs. Tredwell received guests, a black horsehair sofa is only barely outdone by the large oil portraits lining the walls, and the ceiling is detailed to replicate one found in a Greek temple. Upstairs is the burgundy and gold ensconced bed where first Seabury and then 68 years later, Gertrude drew their final breaths. The top floor shows where the “Irish girls” slaved away and slept, their iron bed frames draped with their Roman Catholic rosaries, a religion frowned upon by the Protestant Tredwells and the rest of New York society.
Group and self-guided tours are available. The museum frequently hosts interesting special events: summer garden parties, ghost tours, and my favorite so far: a reenactment of a funeral in 1865 where visitors were encouraged to wear 19th century mourning clothes. The folks here do a very good job of providing a glimpse into the very insular society life of old New York. Map
Each time I visit MJM I’m thrilled by the unexpected site of cobblestoned Sylvan Terrace, the Harlem Renaissance era brownstones, and the juxtaposition of a rambling white mansion, which also happens to be the oldest house in the city, perched on a hill in the middle of Manhattan. Colonel Roger Morris built this summer home in 1765 and over the years, Mount Morris became a story in itself. It was (and is) one of the highest points in Manhattan, and in 1776, George Washington, because of the spanning views, made the mansion his headquarters and strategized the Battle of Harlem Heights. In the 1920s, the area became known as Sugar Hill, where no less than Duke Ellington lived.
Perhaps the most interesting resident of the mansion was its last mistress, Eliza Jumel. Born into poverty, Eliza married a wealthy merchant who purchased the home in 1810. When Stephen Jumel’s business began losing money, she found ways to go into business for herself to support both of them at a time when it was unheard of for women to earn money. Eliza died in the house and there have been reports of a ghostly presence that witnesses have identified as Eliza. MJM frequently hosts interesting events, so keep an eye on their website. I love the site-specific plays, especially last Halloween’s production, “Awakening in Ink,” a ghost story that assumes Eliza Jumel still roams the mansion at night. The audience followed an actor, playing a caretaker, throughout the dark corners of the house as she investigated the creaks and groans coming from different rooms. Chasing a ghost through a dark house that George Washington once slept in is definitely up there among my all-time favorite New York experiences. Map
To tour Teddy’s childhood home is to hear the story of a boy stricken with severe asthma, and how that boy overcame his physical limitations to become an avid hunter and outdoorsman, Lieutenant Colonel of the Rough Riders, and eventually president of the United States. Teddy grew up in great wealth. His father was one of old New York’s greatest philanthropists and had a hand in founding, among many other things, the American Museum of Natural History and the Children’s Aid Society. A strong sense of service to his community was instilled in Teddy at an early age. The tour guide tells stories of Teddy’s early life with his family as we pass through each room. On the horsehair sofa in the living room, Teddy’s brothers and sisters would clamor for the attention of Teddy, Sr. The horsehair bothered little Teddy’s asthma, though, so a new chair of his very own was built for him. An elegant six-leaf table is set in the dining room, where a beautiful blue set of dinnerware, a gift from cousin Eleanor Roosevelt, is on display.
A lot of the furniture and artifacts are original. I especially loved Teddy’s parents’ bedroom furniture—a heavy armoire, desk, and bed hand-carved from rosewood. The ground floor is a good place to begin: it is set up as a timeline of President Roosevelt’s life, with displays of news clippings, quotes, and a handful of Teddy’s belongings that give us a glimpse into the young man he was, and the president he became. Map