How Alexander Hamilton's House Got Moved
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.
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.
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.”