How Alexander Hamilton's House Got Moved

Wolfe House and Building Movers
Wolfe House and Building Movers

For nearly three weeks in the spring of 2008, residents and passersby near Convent Avenue and 141st Street in Harlem craned their necks to take in a peculiar sight. Positioned atop a 38-foot structure of crib piles, shimmies, and steel beams was a two-story yellow house originally built for Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury and future Broadway musical sensation.

On site since 1889, the house—which Hamilton called the Grange after his Scottish grandfather, the onetime Laird of Grange—had been the subject of debate for nearly a century. Boxed in by an apartment building on its right side and a church on its left, it was being suffocated by real estate development and in desperate need of an extensive renovation. To do that, it would have to be relocated. But the loggia (a porch-like structure) of the church jutted in front, making a direct move forward impossible.

In order to restore the house to its original condition, the National Park Service would have to effectively perform a housing transplant, moving it around 500 feet to a park site. They considered cutting it in half, or lopping off pieces that they could later put back together. But a proposal from a family-owned firm that specializes in moving houses offered a different approach: They’d raise the house up on jacks, slide it over onto the street, equip it with wheels, then “drive” it around a corner and down a 6 percent grade.

It would be delicate work, but it wasn't as though the Grange hadn't been on the move before.

The Hamilton house is raised 32 feet above grade
Wolfe House and Building Movers

For all of the historical significance attached to the Grange, Hamilton didn’t have a lot of time to enjoy it. Built in what was then countryside by architect John McComb Jr., who also designed City Hall, the home was finished in 1802 and owed a lot of its design to Hamilton himself. Roomy enough for his seven children and 1000-book library, he considered it his retreat from politics and the danger of yellow fever in the city. Away on business, he often left instructions for his wife, Eliza, for specific garden arrangements.

Just two years after the Grange was completed, Hamilton walked out the door for his fateful duel with Aaron Burr and never returned. His widow sold it in 1833.

By 1889, the Grange was blocking the expanding street grid of Manhattan. (West 143rd Street would have been built through it.) Land developers who had possession of the property donated it to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, which set about preserving the building by moving it 250 feet to Convent Avenue. “It was done the old-fashioned way,” Stephen Spaulding, Director of the Historic Architecture, Conservation and Engineering Center at the National Park Service, tells Mental Floss. “They put it on railroad jacks, used wooden wheels, and pulled it with horses.”

Though it was safe from destruction in its new location, the Grange would shortly find itself buttressed by developments on either side. An apartment building built in 1910 flanked the right side; the church to the left built a porch that partially obscured the view from the street. It was a suffocating position that made needed renovations difficult. The National Park Service, which took responsibility for the Grange when it became a National Memorial in 1962 on the condition it could be relocated, went through a series of options. “There were a number of locations discussed,” Spaulding says. Grant’s Tomb, a National Memorial on Riverside Drive and 122nd Street in New York, was one possibility.

By the early 1990s, the NPS had one site in mind: St. Nicholas Park, which sat just 500 feet from the Grange and featured a hillside clearing perfect for the historic property. But locals were against the move; they complained removing the house from its location next to the church would contribute to blight in the area by leaving a vacant lot.

Complicating the matter was the notion of the federal government (via the Park Service) colluding with New York state and city bureaucracy to facilitate the project. “That was a long process,” Spaulding says, citing endless federal and state regulations that had to be cleared in order to cut a path for the disruptive move. Once that was settled, the NPS had to field bids from firms that offered different approaches for uprooting the building, which stood on a double basement foundation.

“We basically had three options,” Spaulding says. “We could remove the church porch and then reconstruct it afterward. We could disassemble and move major sections. Or we could raise it up by jacking it.”

The first two options carried major caveats. The church's stone porch was fragile and the potential for damage was high; moving the house piecemeal could have proven hazardous to the structural integrity of the Grange. Aiming to mitigate that risk, the contractor for the move, Integrated Construction Enterprises, brought in Wolfe House & Building Movers, an East Coast firm that specializes in moving multi-ton buildings in a methodical manner.

Mike Brovont, an estimator with Wolfe House, tells Mental Floss that the firm is just “one of a handful” that can handle projects of this scope. “There are a few hundred guys who can jack up a house and put it on a foundation,” he says. “But this one had some unusual needs.”

The church’s stone porch was problem one. “And we couldn’t go in from the back because of trees,” Brovont says. Wolfe’s plan was to come at the problem vertically, raising the house off its foundation 38 feet in the air to clear the obstruction of the porch. “This way, we could keep it intact.”

Over a period of three weeks in May and June 2008, Wolfe employees performed a structural levitation act. The Grange—which weighs roughly 300 tons—was raised in stages. First, the Grange's porch needed to be removed, since it couldn’t be counted on to remain intact. Next, workers drilled holes through the exposed foundation in order to install steel beams that would facilitate the lift. For areas underneath making little contact with the beams, shims and blocks were hammered in to create a flush connection.

Once the house was framed underneath with the beams, hydraulic jacks were placed beneath those to begin pushing the house upward. When it reached the 82 feet needed to clear the porch, crib piles—think warehouse pallets resembling several enormous Jenga towers—were placed underneath for support while another crib structure was built in front on the street. Hevi-Haul rollers pushed by hydraulic rams allowed the first set of steel beams to be rolled onto the adjacent frame, putting the house on a new structure and away from the neighboring buildings.

“At that point, we reversed the jacks until the house was back down on the cribbing piles, then on dollies,” Brovont says. The nine dollies, which could be controlled remotely, effectively turned the house into a mobile home with 72 wheels. It was time to go for a short, highly precarious ride.

A contractor evaluates the wheeled dollies underneath the Hamilton house
Wolfe House and Building Movers

On, June 7, 2008—moving day—dozens of residents, reporters, and protesters gathered to see a rare event: a historic landmark locomoting down the street. The house would have to endure both a turn and a 6 percent grade down the street, which had been cleared and prepared in advance. Internal bracing kept the house from experiencing undue stress; a mile of chain added cross-braced support to the beams. Heavy forklift equipment followed behind to provide braking power in case the house wanted to edge backward.

“At its fastest, it was probably at the speed of a slow walk,” Brovont says. “We hooked the dollies together with hydraulic fluid hoses and stopped a lot to check and make sure everything was holding. It was on a level plane kind of like a tricycle." With nine dollies, the home could be turned in any direction.

A temporary road was built to make the turn level. In about three hours, the Grange had arrived in St. Nicholas Park, idling for a bit while construction workers finished its new foundation. The house was then rolled onto steel beams, “parking” itself permanently. (The Convent Avenue site now sports a garden and a Hamilton statue.)

“The work I thought would be most precarious ended up being the simplest,” Spaulding says of the rolling home. “I was very impressed with [Wolfe’s] skills.”

The move was the penultimate stage in what would eventually be a $14.5 million project. For the next several years, the NPS supervised an extensive restoration of the Grange that allowed its original character to shine through. “It used to be so dark and dismal,” Spaulding says. “Now you can see all four sides of the exterior and really get a sense of how glorious it must have been sitting on the crown of Manhattan.”

The Hamilton musical obviously led to a bump in tourism for the Grange, which is open to the public in its new, static location. For Spaulding, seeing it in motion was a memorable ride. “The geek in me, the 8-year-old in me, really loves that stuff.”

7 of the World’s Most Fascinating and Beautiful Catacombs

A cross stands in the Roman catacombs
A cross stands in the Roman catacombs
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Jerusalem is a coveted burial spot, but the ancient city is running out of space to bury the dead. In 2015, the Jerusalem Jewish Community Burial Society teamed up with a construction group to bore beneath a mountain in the city’s largest cemetery, Har Hamenuchot, and create a massive underground necropolis that will house 22,000 crypts. The plan is to create burial spaces arranged floor-to-ceiling in a network of intersecting tunnels—a little like the ones that first graced the Middle East thousands of years ago. The first section of the modernized catacombs is set to open in October 2019.

Here are seven of the most beautiful and historically fascinating catacombs from elsewhere in the world.

1. Rome Catacombs

Catacombs originated in the Middle East about 6000 years ago and spread to Rome with Jewish migration. Early Christians modeled their burial practices on Jewish customs, although they were forced by Roman rules to bury outside the city limits. Since land was expensive, they went underground, digging an estimated 375 miles of tunnels through Rome's soft volcanic tuff, and building networks of rooms lined with rectangular niches called loculi. Later, more complex tombs included cubical (small rooms that served as a family tomb) and arcosolia (large niches with an arch over the opening, also used for families). Both were often decorated with religious frescos, gold medallions, statues, and other art. The beauty wasn’t just for the dead but for the living, who congregated there to share funeral meals and mark death anniversaries. (The idea that persecuted Christians secretly worshipped there, however, is a Romantic-era legend.)

By the early 5th century, barbarians had invaded Rome and began ransacking the tombs, so the remains of interred saints and martyrs were moved to more secure locations in churches around the city. The catacombs were forgotten for centuries, until miners accidentally rediscovered one under the Via Salaria in 1578. That set off a rush for relics (often of dubious provenance). Today, Rome’s 40-odd catacombs have been stripped of bodies, but the ancient frescoes and winding passageways make them well worth a visit.

2. Paris Catacombs

Inside the Paris catacombs
Inside the Paris catacombs
Michelle Reynolds/iStock via Getty Images

They weren't the first, but the Paris catacombs might be the most famous in the world, and little can compete with them for sheer macabre glamor. Created by the Romans as limestone quarries to build the city above, their current use dates from the late 18th century, when overcrowded cemeteries around the city sparked public health concerns. (One of the worst offenders was Saints-Innocents, in use for almost a millennium and overflowing with corpses, which wasn’t so great considering its proximity to the popular Les Halles market). Starting in the late 18th century, officials took charge of the situation by relocating the bones—from an estimated six to seven million people—to the former quarries, which were specially blessed and consecrated for that purpose.

The catacombs were opened as a public curiosity in the 19th century, and today visitors can see the bones piled into artful arrangements. (One design is shaped like a keg, another like a heart.) Other attractions include an underground spring, a sepulchral lamp, sculptures created by a quarryman, and special exhibits. Only part of the roughly 200 feet of tunnels is open to the public, although that hasn't stopped intrepid urban explorers, artists, and thieves from journeying to the off-limits sections. In 2004, Parisian police discovered a secret cinema set up inside one area, complete with a bar.

3. Catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa

A series of tombs tunneled into the bedrock beneath Alexandria starting in the second century, the catacombs of Kom el Shoqafa ("Mound of Shards") were forgotten until 1900, when a donkey fell into an access shaft. Today the three levels of catacombs are open for visits, and include several giant stone coffins as well as carvings, statues, and other archeological details melding Roman, Greek, and Egyptian styles. On the second level is the Hall of Caracalla, said to contain the remains of young Christian men (and at least one horse) massacred by Caracalla in AD 215.

4. Palermo Capuchin Catacombs

Mummies in the Catacombs of the Capuchins in Palermo
Mummies in the Catacombs of the Capuchins in Palermo
n e o g e j o, Flickr (1) and (2) // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the 16th century, the Capuchin church in Palermo, Sicily, began outgrowing its cemetery and the monks got the idea of embalming their dead brethren and putting them on show in the catacombs instead. At first only friars got this special treatment, but the practice caught on and local notables began asking for the honor in their wills. Roughly 12,000 people have since been embalmed and arranged for display according to demographic—the categories include Men, Women, Virgins, Children, Priests, Monks, and Professionals. Burials didn't stop until the 1920s, and one of the most famous inhabitants is also among the last—the beautiful Rosalie Lombardo.

5. Rabat Catacombs, Malta

The St. Paul's catacombs in Malta
The St. Paul's catacombs in Malta

Beneath the modern city of Rabat, Malta (once the ancient Roman town of Melite) lies an extensive system of rock-hewn underground tombs dating from the fourth to the ninth century AD. Unlike most other catacombs throughout the Mediterranean—and indeed the world—the tunnels were used to bury Jews, Christians, and pagans, without noticeable divisions among the groups.

Features include large tables used for ceremonial meals commemorating the dead and canopied burial chambers, some of which have been inscribed with illustrations and messages (archeologists are still working to interpret the site). Major catacomb complexes in Rabat include those of St. Paul, St. Agatha and Tad-Dejr.

6. St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna

A winged skull at the entrance to the St. Stephen’s Cathedral crypt
A winged skull at the entrance to the St. Stephen’s Cathedral crypt
Douglas Sprott, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna, St. Stephen's Cathedral is one of the most important buildings in the city, known for its gorgeous multi-colored tile roof (and for being the site of Vivaldi's funeral). But fewer tourists visit the crypt, where the remains of more than 11,000 people lie.

Although most of the current cathedral dates to the 14th century, the crypt originated after an outbreak of the bubonic plague in the 1730s, when cemeteries around Vienna were emptied in an effort to stem the tide of the disease. Many of the skeletons were piled into neat rows, skulls on top, although visitors to some areas will also see disorganized piles of bones. In one section, the ducal crypt, the organs of princes, queens, and emperors are stored—including Hapsburg Queen Maria Teresa's stomach.

7. Brno Ossuary

A routine archeological dig as part of a construction project in 2001 led to an unexpected discovery in Brno, the Czech Republic—a long-forgotten underground charnel house crammed with skeletons. An estimated 50,000 sets of remains had been stuffed beneath St. Jacob's Square during the 17th and 18th centuries, originally stacked in neat rows but later jumbled by water and mud. The site opened for public viewing in June 2012, and today it’s the second-largest (known) ossuary in Europe, after the Paris catacombs.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

The Stories Behind 11 Iconic Skyscrapers

iStock
iStock

You may have snaked through a long line of fellow tourists to trek to the observation deck for a breathtaking view from the top of the city, but do you know the stories behind many of the world's most iconic skyscrapers? In honor of Skyscraper Day, we've stacked up some of the details.

1. Willis Tower // Chicago

A picture the Willis Tower in Chicago from the view of a local neighborhood.
ParlierPhotography/iStock via Getty Images

In 1969 the world’s largest retailer, Sears Roebuck and Company, decided they needed an office space for their roughly 350,000 employees. Four years, 2000 workers, and enough concrete to build an eight-lane, five-mile highway later, the 110-story Sears Tower was complete. (In 1988, Sears moved out of the building; 21 years later it was renamed the Willis Tower after global insurance broker Willis Group Holdings.) As a memorable finishing touch, 12,000 construction workers, Chicagoans, and Sears employees signed the building’s final beam.

2. Bank of China Tower // Hong Kong

Low-angle view of Bank of China Tower
shansekala/iStock via Getty Images

When famed Chinese architect I.M. Pei was tasked with designing this 70-story structure, he was dealt a number of challenges. He needed to craft a tall building (it stands at 1209 feet) in a typhoon zone and create a design that was pleasing to local residents. His masterpiece—opened in 1990 after a five-year construction—is supported by five steel columns meant to resist high-velocity winds, and is inspired by bamboo shoots, which symbolize strength and prosperity.

3. Chrysler Building // New York City

New York City's Chrysler Building
iStock

A mere 11 months after it gained the title of tallest building in the world in 1930—thanks to the last minute addition of a 186-foot spire—this art deco wonder surrendered its title to the Empire State Building. But it has long been known as one of the world’s prettiest structures. When automobile tycoon Walter P. Chrysler took over financing, he strove to add glamour to New York’s East Side. The design already featured a multi-story section of glass corners and a stainless steel crown, but he requested the addition of eagle-esque gargoyles designed like the hood ornaments on his cars.

4. The Gherkin // London

London's The Gherkin, 30 St. Mary Axe
YolaW/iStock via Getty Images

Known informally as "The Gherkin" for its pickle-esque shape, 30 St. Mary Axe was dreamed up after a 1992 explosion in London’s financial district destroyed the Baltic Exchange building. Plans for the original design—the much taller Millennium Tower—were scrapped for fear it could affect air traffic into the Heathrow Airport and the sightlines of St. Paul’s Dome. It turns out that the pickled inspiration was a winner; when the cylindrical building opened in 2004, it gained quick notoriety, and was soon used as a symbol for London on bid posters for the 2012 Olympic Games.

5. Petronas Twin Towers // Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Petronas Twin Towers the famous landmark of Malaysia
ojogabonitoo/iStock via Getty Images

The world’s tallest twin towers (88 floors each) were completed in 1996 after a three-year build. The steel-and-glass façade was created to reflect elements found in Islamic art, while the sky bridge—between the towers’ 41st and 42nd floors—was crafted with safety in mind. It’s not bolted to the main structure, but rather designed to be able to slide in and out of the buildings to keep it from snapping during high winds.

6. Hotel & Casino Grand Lisboa // Macau, China

Night Macao Skyline, including Casinos such as, The Grand Lisboa and Wynn
fazon1/iStock via Getty Images

When crafting this 58-floor hotel and casino, the Hong Kong architects didn’t take any chances. The $385 million structure, which opened in 2008, was built to resemble a bottleneck—the idea being that it would keep any cash from leaking out, according to feng shui. The outlandish exterior, meanwhile, was intended to look like a combination of crystals, fireworks and the plumes of a Brazilian headdress—all thought to symbolize prosperity.

7. Empire State Building // New York City

Skyline of New York with the Empire State Building
johnkellerman/iStock via Getty Images

For four decades, the famed Manhattan skyscraper held tight to the distinction of being the world’s tallest. (It was eclipsed by the World Trade Center towers in 1972.) But the $41 million structure—featured in movies such as King Kong (1933) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993)—also scored another record: It was built in just one year and 45 days, the quickest for a building of its size. Each week, 3000 workers erected four-and-a-half new floors.

8. Shanghai World Finance Center // Pudong, Shanghai

Jin Mao, Shanghai Tower and Shanghai World Financial Center at Lujiazui
LynnSheng/iStock via Getty Images

This 101-floor behemoth was built to withstand destruction. There are fireproof floors, wind dampeners, and a glass skin to protect against lightning. (It can reportedly survive a magnitude 8 earthquake.) The building has also weathered adversity. Slated for construction in 1997, progress was delayed due to the Asian financial crisis before it was finally completed in 2008. And the initial design, which featured a circular opening at the top rather than the now rectangular one, had to be reconfigured when critics complained it too closely resembled the rising sun on the Japanese flag.

9. Tapei 101 // Tapei, Taiwan

Taipei, Taiwan downtown skyline at the Xinyi Financial District
SeanPavonePhoto/iStock via Getty Images

Fashioned to resemble a growing bamboo stalk—a Chinese sign of everlasting strength—this $1.8 billion building boasts two records. When it was opened in 2004 (construction took five years), it was the first skyscraper to surpass the half-kilometer mark. It also claims the title of fastest passenger elevator. After boarding on the fifth floor, riders reach the 89th floor observation deck in a speedy 37 seconds.

10. CN Tower // Toronto, Canada

Toronto Skyline with the CN Tower apex at sunset
Redfox_Ca/iStock via Getty Images

In a bid to demonstrate the strength of Canadian industry, railway company Canadian National set out to build the tallest tower in the world. For 40 months, 1537 workers toiled 24 hours a day, five days week, reaching completion in April 1975. (A 10-ton helicopter dubbed "Olga" was commissioned to bolt the 44 pieces of the antenna in place.) In 1995, the American Society of Civil Engineers deemed it one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, but 15 years later, its height was surpassed by China’s Canton Tower.

11. Burj Khalifa // Dubai, United Arab Emirates

An aerial view of Dubai's Burj Khalifa
dblight/iStock via Getty Images

At 2716 feet (more than twice the height of the Empire State Building!) and half a million tons, the gleaming desert structure holds a number of records. Among them: tallest building in the world and the tallest freestanding structure. The $1.5 billion, state-of-the-art mega skyscraper was designed by the same firm that dreamt up the Willis Tower and New York’s One World Trade Center, and it opened in 2010 after six years of work. The opening ceremony featured a light and water effects show and some 10,000 fireworks!

This article has been updated for 2019.

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