Two old homes, hidden among 20th-century apartment blocks, are especially evocative of the first days of the fledging nation, and they honor some pretty colorful early New Yorkers, too.
At the Morris-Jumel Mansion, (pictured) it’s easy to imagine beautiful Eliza Jumel gliding across the creaking pine floors and settling into one of the French Empire silk chairs. Eliza was no stuffy colonial dame. A former prostitute, she worked her way into ‘proper’ society and married wealthy wine merchant Stephen Jumel. In 1810 the couple bought a Palladian-style house that was built in 1765, became the Revolutionary War headquarters of George Washington, and is now the oldest home in Manhattan. Before long Eliza was a wealthy widow and advanced her status even further by marrying vice president Aaron Burr – from whom she soon filed for divorce, when she discovered how quickly her new husband was going through her fortune.
Among Eliza’s neighbors were the wife and children of Alexander Hamilton, first US secretary of the treasury, who in 1802 built a manor house, the Grange, on 32 acres of orchards, gardens, and parkland. The house shows off fine early American furniture, but the private life of Hamilton was a lot less tidy. His affair with a married woman, Maria Reynolds, was one of the great scandals of early American politics, and in 1804 he was shot dead – by none other than Aaron Burr. The Grange has since been moved to St Nicholas Park, and the greenery outside the windows suggests the open land that once surrounded the house. The Morris-Jumel Mansion is at the end of Sylvan Terrace, a lane of wooden row houses from the 1880s.