We had another great trip to the Big Apple this past weekend, this time staying in the East Village. The punk era there still clings to its roots with concerts in the park ("Universal Truth Machine" spewed for the cause) and gritty murals, but the “g” word certainly does apply.
We didn’t plan it this way, but it turned out we visited three of Manhattan’s oldest houses. The first was Gracie Mansion, which overlooks the Harlem River in the upper East Side. General George Washington looked down to Hell’s Kitchen from this vantage point during the Revolutionary War.
That house is gone, replaced by the current one, which made the 18th century built list by one year. Since the 1940s it’s been the official residence of the city’s hizzoners. One can only tour on Tuesdays so we got lucky that way. The curator/tour guide was top notch and deftly walked through various aspects of American history and the history of the house.
Next stop was Harlem, to see Hamilton Grange, the house Alexander Hamilton built in 1802. In case you haven’t heard, the musical Hamilton is the hottest thing in New York right now. So much so that a local resident told us more and more folks are finding their way up to 145th Street to see where he lived. A half block away lies his statue, marking the spot where the house was originally located.
Onward we walked through the Sugar Hill neighborhood, which was a center of gravity during the Harlem Renaissance. The Giants had a renaissance of their own after sagging during the 1940s. The player who more than anyone else came to represent black pride during that time when baseball was king in New York was the Say Hey Kid.
Leo fell in love with Mays and even went to pick him up in his Cadillac. We paused to take a photo at 80 St. Nicholas Place, the tenement house where Mays stayed in his rookie years. His apartment was a short walk from the Polo Grounds. Willie also played stick ball with the kids in the street. In his book written with Lou Sahadi, Mays recalls:
“One night I got so wrapped up in a big stickball game that I forgot to make it to the Polo Grounds. Leo sent Frank Forbes to look for me. Sure enough, he found me standing on one of the sewers.”
Now within site of the Polo Grounds site, which is marked by four high rise apartments of the same name, we crossed over 155th Street and easily found the John Brush Stairway. These steep steps served fans for over 70 years and made it easy to walk from Coogan’s Bluff to the bathtub-shaped stadium across the river from Yankee Stadium.
Several years ago the city fixed the stairway up nicely, the only reminder of the ballpark where the Giants played after the city kicked them out of the original polo grounds just north of Central Park.
Frank Sinatra once crooned – "there used to be a ballpark here." In some cases, the old footprint and reference points are long gone and completely built over, making it hard to visualize what it was like to attend a ballgame. On our last trip to New York we found this true for Ebbets Field. Fortunately with the Polo Grounds, the situation is better.
It’s been three generations since the Giants played their last game with the interlocking NY on their hats at the Polo Grounds (returned to play the Mets there in 1962 and 1963). Willie did come back a couple of years ago and visited the school adjacent to the complex, but still, finding old time Giants fans who remember going to the games would be a matter of luck.
As we stood at the top of the stairs and looked down, we saw some older men sitting and talking at a few tables. This contrasted with what the guy we had talked to earlier told us. Stay away from the site itself, he said, where the Polo Grounds apartments are located. Apparently, it’s still “sketchy.”
I challenged him on that, mentioning Mays’s visit and telling him other Giants fans had gone down there and taken a photo by the home plate plaque. Still, we were on a tight schedule and ended up not stepping where Giants roamed.
Joe, however, picked up on the friendly vibe of the men at the bottom of the staircase and started talking to them. I joined in and what a blast it was. The eyes of one older man with an Hispanic accent lit up when we told him we were life long Giants fans. We talked about Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda and I even mentioned Tito Fuentes!
Our last stop stood two more streets north of the stairway on the crown of Coogan’s Bluff. This is the Morris-Jumel house. Built in 1765, the dwelling is now a museum and is apparently the oldest home in the borough.
I know a lot was torn down in Manhattan, but still, I would have guessed the oldest home in the borough would have been older than this one.
It also seems odd to me that this house isn’t really on the radar screen as much as it could be. Many towns and cities make a big deal about their oldest house. But undoubtedly this one’s location this far north has a lot to do with the apparent lack of attention, and of course, there are a million other places to see in the city.
Still, this home does have some fascinating history. In somewhat of a familiar tale, an Englishman built and lived in it, but ended up returning to the Mother Country when the patriots prevailed in the war. Washington also used this house during the Revolutionary War.
Hamilton even manages to get into this story, although it is a stretch. Frenchman Stephen Jumel fixed up the house in 1810. After his death in 1832, his widow Eliza married Aaron Burr, who, of course, mortally wounded the man whose contributions to the founding of our country are so important and inspired the musical that people are paying north of a grand to see.
The city bought the property in 1903 and opened it up as a museum. It holds “some of the finest Georgian interiors in America.”
Another interesting feature of this house is it, too, held views of the Polo Grounds. Cranks standing on Coogan’s Bluff had a partial view of the field. I wondered if Stew Thornley covers this in his book, Land of the Giants. (Photo from Wiki Commons).
While the Washington Headquarters Association, operators of the museum, discouraged fans from loitering on the grounds to watch a game, there were many vantage points in this general vicinity.
Of course, it was a limited one.
“You always got to see the shortstop, the left fielder, and the center fielder. You saw the second baseman on plays near the base and the third baseman on plays away from it.” (Milton Bracker, “The Days of McGraw.”)
One final note on the Morris-Jumel House. Wiki writes that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote portions of his musical Hamilton at the dwelling.
It goes without saying that the Big Apple has great architecture. We kept pointing out and discussing all the quoins, lintels, pediments and figurines. Now if I could just learn the difference between a Doric and Ionic column...