A Hamilton Tour of New York
AUG 11, 2015
Like many a scrappy, impoverished and self-taught immigrant, Alexander Hamilton left an indelible mark in New York City.
Born illegitimate on a remote Caribbean island and orphaned at an early age, he also helped lay the foundation for an economic and political structure that still governs America more than two centuries later. Now, with Hamilton, the new Broadway musical written by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton himself remains as potent a presence as ever.
Imagine New York City in Hamilton’s day. Of course, this city has always been in flux, continuously transforming itself since the Dutch started trading here more than century before the 19-year-old - arrived in 1772. The city that became the first capital of the new United States of America (from 1785 to 1788) occupied just the southern end of Manhattan. Most of the places Hamilton frequented were within walking distance of each other; the country estates on the island’s northern end, above Harlem, were a carriage ride away. Everything in between was farmland — including the region that would emerge more than a century later as today’s Theatre District.
Like many prominent New Yorkers, Hamilton and his wife, Eliza, were often seen at the theatre. According to biographer Ron Chernow, they attended a performance of Sheridan’s The Critic with the president and first lady, George and Martha Washington, in 1786 at the John Street Theatre (located a block away from today’s Fulton Street subway station). It should come as no surprise that the theatre was subsequently torn down a mere decade later.
However, despite all the transformations the city has undergone, if you tour of the sites and locations featured in the life of Broadway’s latest musical-theater hero, you can still find direct reminders from the era when Hamilton strode the mean streets of Manhattan.
The Immigrant Gets an Education at King’s College (Columbia University), Lower Manhattan
Although his journey from the West Indies was sponsored so he could further his education in America, the young Hamilton, barely in his twenties, dropped out of King’s College in 1775 to fight in the Revolutionary War. (The college changed its name to Columbia University after the British defeat.) When Hamilton attended the institution, it was located in College Hall, which was built on a plot of land northwest of the city’s Common (today’s City Hall Park), bound by the present-day Murray, Church, Barclay, and Greenwich Streets. (It was demolished in 1857.)
In 1908, Hamilton’s alma mater honored him with the bronze statue that now commands the entrance of Hamilton Hall located on the east side of the university’s current location on Manhattan’s Upper West Side at 116th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
A Revolution Brews at Fraunces Tavern, Lower Manhattan
Located at 54 Pearl Street at the corner of Broad Street, Fraunces Tavern originally bore the name of Queen Charlotte (the young bride of King George III); the public house eventually took on the name of its proprietor and figured prominently in the war against the British.
In the musical Hamilton, it is here that the young Hamilton makes his commitment to the American Revolution, declaring his determination to make it into the history books: “Hey, yo, I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry / and I’m not throwing away my shot.”
Fraunces Tavern’s Long Room was the scene of Washington’s emotional farewell to the Continental Army on December 4, 1783, just more than a week after the last British soldiers left New York. In 1785 the tavern was leased to the Continental Congress for three years and housed several government departments, including Hamilton’s Treasury Department.
On July 4, 1804, both Hamilton and Aaron Burr attended a banquet hosted by the Society of the Cincinnati, an order of retired officers from the Revolutionary War, just a week before their infamous duel.
Today only a few structural walls of the original building remain; the tavern was rebuilt in the Colonial Revival style by the Sons of Liberty, who purchased the property in 1904. It now includes two restaurants in addition to several rooms of museum space. The famous Long Room is re-created with colonial artifacts to conjure up its Revolutionary past.
King George III Loses His Head at Bowling Green, Lower Manhattan
In Miranda’s musical, George III just never gets it. When he finds his grip on the American colonies slipping, he sings: “You say our love is draining and you can’t go on / You’ll be the one complaining when I am gone.” But in fact, the moment when General Washington read out the newly minted Declaration of Independence to his troops in New York in July 1776, a mob of soldiers and nationalists rushed to Bowling Green, a city park since 1733, and tore down the gilded statue of the tone-deaf British monarch from its marble pedestal. The statue was decapitated and the king’s head stuck on a spike; the lead from the sculpture was melted down to make ammunition for the Revolutionary War.
The park’s original metal fence was removed in 1914 when a subway station was built near the site, but was later discovered intact in storage and re-erected on the original site. When you visit Bowling Green park today, at the foot of Broadway, Whitehall Street, and State Street, you can still see where the 18th century patriots sawed the decorative crowns off the tops of the fence posts in their defiance of the British.
The destruction of George III’s statue and its historical import inspired German artist Johannes Adam Simon Oertel to paint the scene, albeit with considerable poetic license. The original is part of the collection of the New-York Historical Society and is currently on display at the Society’s galleries at 170 Central Park West, along with a surviving fragment from the tail of the equestrian statue.
Courtesy of the New York Historical Society
This November, the New-York Historical Society honors both Miranda, the composer/star of Hamilton, and Chernow, whose definitive biography inspired the musical, at its 2015 History Makers Gala for “humanizing a legendary New Yorker and making the complex history of America’s founding era accessible and compelling for today’s audiences.”
A New Nation Is Born at Federal Hall, Lower Manhattan
Washington was inaugurated as the country’s first president amid great fanfare at Federal Hall, located at 28 Wall Street. The building itself was torn down and replaced by the U.S. Customs House in 1842. The current Greek Revival–style building now functions as the Federal Hall National Memorial. You can see two artifacts preserved from Hamilton’s era: the Bible upon which the country’s first president took his oath of office, and a stone tile from the balcony where Washington stood for the ceremony on April 30, 1789.
A five-minute detour from Federal Hall will take you to 59 Maiden Lane, a sprawling office tower whose claim to fame is the plaque on one side of the building, which marks the house, at number 57, where Thomas Jefferson lived while he served as the first secretary of state. Jefferson loathed his time here; he described New York City as “a cloacina of all the depravities of human nature.” It was in this house that he, James Madison, and Hamilton worked out the compromise of 1790 whereby the federal government assumed all state debts in return for establishing a permanent capital along the shores of the Potomac. The deal had far-reaching consequences, but, as Burr enviously notes in the musical, “No one else was in the room where it happened.”
Celebrating a Victory at Morris-Jumel Mansion, Washington Heights, Upper Manhattan
In July 1790, Washington hosted a dinner for his Cabinet members and their families, who included Hamilton, Jefferson, Henry Knox, and John Adams, at Manhattan’s oldest surviving historic home. It is now known as the Morris-Jumel Mansion and is located at 65 Jumel Terrace, near 160th Street and Edgecombe Avenue. The celebratory dinner commemorated one of the first victories of the Revolutionary War — the Battle of Harlem Heights, in 1776 — during which Washington, with Hamilton as his aide, headquartered in the house. Being sited on the second highest hill on the island of Manhattan, it commanded an unobstructed view of New York Harbor.
By a strange coincidence of history, the man who was responsible for Hamilton’s death, Aaron Burr, also lived at the Morris-Jumel house when he was briefly married, at age 77, to the widow Eliza Jumel who was believed at the time to be the wealthiest woman in the nation. Lin-Manuel Miranda was given the opportunity to actually work in Burr’s own bedroom while he was working on his musical.
The Retired Politician Builds His Country Home, Hamilton Grange, Upper Manhattan
In a poignant scene in Hamilton, Eliza Hamilton sits at a piano and helps her 9-year-old son practice a song he has written for his father: “My daddy’s trying to start America’s bank / Un deux trois quatre cinq!” Philip Hamilton, the apple of his father’s eye, died tragically at age 19 as a result of a duel — the same fate that awaited his father three years later. Philip’s death was a great sorrow for the whole family, but it particularly affected his younger sister, Angelica, who suffered a nervous breakdown from which she never recovered. The family piano-forte, a gift to Angelica from her aunt, is on view at Hamilton Grange, the country house into which Hamilton moved in 1802.
Unlike his fellow founding fathers, Hamilton didn’t come from landed gentry. His “sweet project,” as he called it, was The Grange, a two-story frame Federal-style house that he built on 35 acres of farmland 9 miles north of his law offices in Lower Manhattan. But he got to live in it for just two years until his untimely death in 1804. Eliza Hamilton continued to live at The Grange until it was sold in 1833 and she moved to Washington, D.C.
Originally sited on an elevation that provided views of the Hudson River on the west and the Harlem and East Rivers on the east, The Grange was relocated in 1889 to make way for the extension of the Manhattan grid. The original structure was moved 250 feet by horse-drawn carriage to Convent Avenue near 141st Street; it remained there until 2008, when it was moved to its present location at the north end of St. Nicholas Park — this time with the benefit of computerized hydraulics. A careful five-year restoration that replaced lost design features and décor was completed in 2011. Most of the furniture on display, with the notable exception of the piano, are faithful reproductions.
When you walk through the study, dining room, and parlor of The Grange today, you can get a sense of how Hamilton might have spent the last two years of his life. The green-walled study (a particularly expensive and unusual shade of paint in its day) contains a few books from his original library — volumes on history and economics that, though rebound in later years, carry the signatures of Hamilton and his wife on the flyleaves — as well as a replica of his portable desk (a lap-desk, if you will). In the yellow-walled octagonal dining room, graced with mirrored doors and majestic French windows, the silver centerpiece on the dining table is an original family heirloom. And of particular interest is the wine cooler — a replica of the gift sent to Hamilton in 1797 from the retired George Washington as a gesture of friendship when the news of Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds hit the scandal sheets. (The original object was sold to a private collector for $782,500 at an auction in 2012.)
Throwing Away the Shot at Weehawken, New Jersey
The view across the Hudson River from Weehawken, New Jersey, is spectacular, but on that fateful dawn on July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton wasn’t there for the view. His appointment was with Aaron Burr. Vice President Burr had challenged his archrival to a duel for allegedly imputing his honor. Was it murder, suicide, or just plain bad luck? Why did Hamilton throw away his shot by shooting in the air? Historians will probably never agree. But Hamilton, age 49, was mortally wounded and died a day later.
The actual dueling grounds, a grassy bluff on the rocky palisades conveniently hidden from view some 20 feet above the water, were destroyed to make room for a railroad in the mid-1800s. But the approximate location (almost directly facing West 42nd Street on the other side of the river) is marked at the top of the cliff above with a bronze bust of Hamilton, erected in 1935, and a set of plaques set up in 2004 to mark the 200th anniversary of the duel. Behind the pedestal that supports the bust is a stone which, according to its inscription, is where Hamilton allegedly rested his head after getting shot. A short distance north of the memorial is a park that is named in Hamilton's honor; its sunning views make it a popular spot for local wedding photo-ops.
The brace of pistols used in the duel that killed Alexander Hamilton were the same used three years earlier in the duel that felled his son Phillip. They belonged to Hamilton’s brother-in-law Colonel John B. Church and remained in the Church family until 1930, when his great-granddaughter Mrs. Henry E. Gilpin sold them to The Bank of The Manhattan Co., the earliest predecessor of the current owners, JPMorgan Chase & Co.
Courtesy of the JPMorgan Chase Corporate History Program collection.
A Final Resting Place at Trinity Church, Lower Manhattan
Hamilton’s funeral on July 14, 1804, is reported to have been a very solemn occasion. He was buried on the south side of Trinity Church, bordering Rector Street. The church itself, at 79 Broadway at Wall Street, is the third building to be constructed on this site, consecrated in 1846.
Eliza Schuyler Hamilton outlived her husband by 50 years. She tirelessly worked to preserve her late husband’s legacy, particularly during the years when he was being vilified by the likes of John Adams, who called Hamilton an “indefatigable and unprincipled intriguer.” When she died in 1854, she was buried next to her husband in Trinity Churchyard.
The face on the Ten Dollar Bill
Hamilton is one of two non-presidents on our currency (Benjamin Franklin is the other). But this June, the U.S. Treasury stirred up controversy with the announcement that the $10 bill will be redesigned and the face of Hamilton on the front will be substituted with that of a prominent woman in American history. But, while it is still around, you can use the bill to purchase a front-row seat for the musical Hamilton at the Richard Rodgers Theatre at a daily lottery drawn two hours before each performance.