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.”

Frank Lloyd Wright's Designs Are Now Available as Bags, Phone Cases, and More

Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, VIDA
Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, VIDA

From Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona to Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright is worth traveling for. Now you can wear the visionary's iconic style wherever you go with a new line of Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired apparel and accessories.

The new collaboration between VIDA and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation marks the first time that Wright's textile patterns have been made available as commercial products. Each item features original art and designs created by the architect. His bold, modernist creations have been printed on scarves, bags, ties, trays, and phone cases. Much like his buildings, the items use colors palettes reminiscent of what you'd see in nature.

Bags with Frank Lloyd Wright design

Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, VIDA

Phone case with Frank Lloyd Wright design

Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, VIDA

Wrap with Frank Lloyd Wright design.

Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, VIDA

Products in the Frank Lloyd Wright line range in price from $30 to $120. You can shop the collection in its entirety at the VIDA online store. (Until June 15, you can use the code MENTALFLOSS25 at checkout to receive 25 percent off your entire order.)

Wearing the fashionable apparel he inspired isn't the only way to appreciate the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright. In May, The Met launched a digital catalog of the architect's forgotten fabrics and wallpapers on its website.

Tie with Frank Lloyd Wright design

Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, VIDA

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

15 Huge Facts About Big Ben

iStock/mammuth
iStock/mammuth

You may have snapped a photo of England’s most iconic clock or seen it in footage of London, but how well do you really know the United Kingdom’s towering timepiece—which rang out for the first time on May 31, 1859.

1. The name "Big Ben" refers to the clock tower's largest bell, not the Clock or the tower itself. 

At some point, London’s superstar clock tower acquired the nickname Big Ben—a name originally given not to the tower itself or even its clock, but to the largest of the clock’s five bells. Also known as the Great Bell, Big Ben stands more than 7 feet tall, measures 9 feet in diameter, and weighs nearly 14 tons. The E-natural behemoth leads a team of four quarter bells, which chime B-natural, E-natural, F-sharp, and G-sharp tones. 

2. Big Ben's clock tower has gone by several names.

Even though it has assumed the Big Ben moniker, the tower has its own official name. For the bulk of its life, the landmark was known simply as the Clock Tower, but it was commonly referenced (especially by the Victorian press) as St. Stephen’s Tower. In 2012, the structure took on a new name—Elizabeth Tower—as part of the celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s 60-year reign. Additionally, the clock itself is named the Great Clock of Westminster. 

3. The bell took its name from one of two famous Bens.

The original “Ben” who lent his name to the bell is a bit of mystery. The prime candidate for the handle’s inspiration is Sir Benjamin Hall, a 19th century engineer and politician who was also a famously large man. As the story goes, Hall gave a longwinded speech on the topic of what the bell should be named, leading a colleague to quip, “Why not call him Big Ben and have done with it?” Hall’s name is inscribed on the bell, which would seem to support this theory. 

The other dominant explanation is that the bell took its name from Benjamin Caunt, a champion heavyweight bare-knuckle boxer of the 19th century. 

4. A lawyer and an astronomer designed the clock movement.

London's Big Ben clock tower
iStock/Moussa81

While you might guess that the English government would have charged top clockmakers with the task of creating such a prominent timekeeper, the pair who actually designed the clock were not trained horologists. Royal Astronomer Sir George Biddell Airy came up with the specifications that the clock had to have, and lawyer, politician, and railway promoter Sir Edmund Beckett Denison designed the movement. 

5. The clockmaker invented a whole new mechanical system for Big Ben.

Airy hired clockmaker Edward John Dent to bring Beckett Denison’s design into reality in 1852, but Dent passed away just one year later before he could finish the job. The project passed to Dent’s stepson, Frederick Rippon Dent. Working from Beckett Denison’s design, Dent built the double three-legged gravity escapement that would become the standard for clock tower design thereafter. 

6. Only residents of the United Kingdom are allowed inside the tower.

Though Big Ben ranks as one of England’s most popular tourist attractions, overseas visitors are not allowed to venture inside the tower. As of 2010, only residents of the United Kingdom can take the tour—and you have to be sponsored by a Member of Parliament of the House of Lords. At the moment, however, none of that really matters: Because of ongoing renovations being made to Elizabeth Tower, all tours have been suspended until at least 2021.

7. Reaching the clock requires a steep climb.

Individuals who are lucky enough to be able to see Big Ben up close face a bit of a climb: There’s no elevator, so the only route to the belfry level is a 334-step spiral stairway. 

8. It took more than a day to haul Big Ben up to the belfry.

If a 334-step hike seems like too much to bear, imagine making the journey with a giant 14-ton bell in tow. It was only after the Great Bell was cast—and then replaced after it cracked during testing—that the men in charge of transporting it to its permanent quarters in the belfry realized that it was just a bit too large for an easy ascent of the building’s narrow stairwell. With some precise angling, winching the mammoth instrument up the 200-foot-high climb was possible, but it wasn’t easy. From start to finish, the job took a full 30 hours

9. The tower leans slightly northwest.

Over its 160 years of keeping an eye on London’s streets, Big Ben has picked up a noticeable tilt. Today, the clock tower leans about a foot and a half off center, pointing northwestward. The main theory for what’s causing the lean is the drying out of the London clay beneath the tower. 

10. A stack of coins keeps the clock on point.

Eschewing high-tech modern methods for timekeeping, Big Ben relies on a far more old-fashioned measure: The lucky penny. Seated perpetually atop Ben’s swinging pendulum is a stack of now discontinued British penny coins. The weight of the stack balances the pendulum’s center of mass, ensuring a steady swing rate and consistent timekeeping. The removal or addition of a coin can alter the clock’s projection by 0.4 seconds per day. In 2009, three of the 10 coins that sit atop the pendulum lost their spot to a five-pound coin celebrating London’s hosting of the 2012 Olympics. 

11. The tower goes incognito during wartime.

Ordinarily, Big Ben is a beacon of English pride with its bright glow and vociferous ring. In times of war, however, the clock tower goes into hiding, dimming its lights and silencing its bells to keep from inviting enemy assault on the Houses of Parliament. Big Ben’s face was dark and its chimes were silent for two years during World War I. During World War II, the clock was dark, but the bell kept ringing. 

12. German bombs couldn't stop the clock from ticking.

Despite efforts to draw attention away from Big Ben, the German military did manage to get the drop on the clock tower. In May of 1941, a Nazi raid on Parliament resulted in the destruction of the House of Commons chamber and damages to Big Ben’s roof and dials. The Commons required total reconstruction, but the clock remained functionally intact throughout the entire ordeal. 

13. The clock didn't fare as well against a flock of birds.

A black and white photo of Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben
iStock/Mohana-AntonMeryl

In 1949, Big Ben would met with an adversary more powerful than the Luftwaffe: A flock of starlings. In August of that year, a group of birds decided the clock’s tremendous minute hand would make a suitable place for an evening perch. The copper appendage attracted so many birds that their collective weight slowed the clockwork by more than four and a half minutes. Management was able to correct this error within a few hours. 

14. The clock faced its first major shutdown in 1976. 

While the bells and lights of Big Ben have taken some breaks over the decades, it took more than 100 years for the clock to have to endure its first significant nonoperational period. In August 1976, general wear and tear of the aging device threw a number of its internal mechanisms into dysfunction, leading to periodic shutdowns for repairs over the next nine months. By May 1977, Big Ben was back in service.

15. Big Ben ceased chiming in 2017.

In late August 2017, Big Ben went silent. The measure was intended to protect workers completing what is intended to be a four-year restoration of both the clock and its surrounding structure. The clock will be dismantled piece by piece, so that its four dials can be cleaned and fixed. Its faces will be temporarily covered, but an electric motor will continue to drive the clock hands so it can keep telling time.

Architects also plan to modernize the clock tower by making it more energy-efficient, and adding an elevator, toilet, and kitchen. But until that work is completed in 2021, Big Ben will still chime only on New Year’s Eve, Remembrance Sunday (a UK holiday that honors veterans), and other special occasions.

This story has been updated for 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER