Walking the Walk in Hamilton’s Old Stomping Grounds

  • January 25, 2016

Walking the Walk in Hamilton’s Old Stomping Grounds


A statue of Alexander Hamilton on the grounds of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Hamilton Heights.

JANUARY 21, 2016

Jimmy Napoli is not throwing away his shot.

For the past 20 years, this guide and Alexander Hamilton expert has been leading tourists and residents through the streets of New York City, telling them stories of the Revolutionary War and its heroes. Now that Hamilton is the star of a hit Broadway musical, Mr. Napoli is focusing a new tour on his favorite founding father.

“A lot of us have been preaching about Hamilton for a very long time,” said Mr. Napoli, 51, an owner of Outside In Tours who has written, lectured and been interviewed in a PBS documentary about the man whose face graces the $10 bill. “He’s finally getting his due.”

Starting on Saturday, Mr. Napoli will be running a three-hour tour through Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights in Manhattan, filling in the blanks — and then some — for both newbies and groupies of the musical “Hamilton,” those who are as obsessed as he is with the first secretary of the Treasury.


The tour guide Jimmy Napoli explaining details about the Federal-style house where Hamilton spent the last two years of his life.

On a dry run last weekend, Mr. Napoli met a reporter on the steps of the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights, where the $50 tour begins. Mr. Napoli, like the man he so admires, is a force of nature, with the energy of an entire cast of actors. He’s six feet tall — “shorter than Washington, though taller than Hamilton” — with long brown hair that he sometimes pulls back into a ponytail.

Dressed in a black “Hamilton” musical T-shirt (he has seen it twice), with an American flag scarf wrapped around his neck, Mr. Napoli looks more like a rock musician than a history buff. (He grew up in Queens and was once a roadie for the Ramones.)

The mansion, tucked into a quiet corner near West 160th Street, was George Washington’s headquarters in the fall of 1776 during the Battle of Harlem Heights, with strategic views of the city and the Harlem and Hudson Rivers. This is also where Aaron Burr, the former vice president who killed Hamilton in a duel, later lived. Walls are decorated with portraits of Burr and his second wife, Eliza Jumel.

Mr. Napoli segues into Hamilton’s humble beginnings on the Caribbean island of Nevis, born the illegitimate son of a Scotsman in 1755 or 1757 (scholars debate the date), though, he said, the musical’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, “splits the difference and says 1756 in the play.”


Aaron Burr at the Morris-Jumel Mansion.

Hamilton’s mother, of French Huguenot descent, died of yellow fever in 1768, leaving the boy an orphan. He inherited her book collection, “consuming every one of them,” Mr. Napoli said.

When he was a teenager, Hamilton’s account of a hurricane’s damage to the island, published in The Royal Danish American Gazette, impressed local businessmen, who collected money to send him to the American colonies to study. He ended up at King’s College (now Columbia University), but after a year he joined the American Revolution.

“He wanted to serve in the military,” Mr. Napoli said, “because in war, a man could advance beyond his social status.” During the Battle of Brooklyn in August 1776, Hamilton stole British guns and cannons. Pacing around the mansion’s first floor, Mr. Napoli gives a colorful description of the battle.

It wasn’t until the Battle of Harlem Heights that General Washington and Hamilton had their first encounter. “He realizes that this kid’s got it together,” Mr. Napoli explained. “And for the next 22 years, Hamilton and Washington work side by side.”


A portrait of Aaron Burr’s second wife, Eliza Jumel, from 1833, at the Morris-Jumel Mansion.

On cue, Mr. Napoli heads for a tour of the second floor, including the bedroom, which was Washington’s war room. It’s here where Mr. Miranda wrote part of his musical, using the room for inspiration.

Mr. Napoli moves on to the dining room, where Washington, as president, held one of his first cabinet meetings with Hamilton, War Secretary Henry Knox, Vice President John Adams and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.

As Washington’s aide-de-camp, Hamilton essentially managed the war for the general, Mr. Napoli said. “He reprimanded other generals for him, set up his spy networks.” He describes the victorious Battle of Yorktown, led by Hamilton, then moves on to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and eventually the Federalist Papers, articles and essays that called for ratification of the United States Constitution.

Hamilton wrote 51 of those 85 documents, “writing five or six essays a week while working as a lawyer at the same time, defending British loyalists who had had their land taken away,” Mr. Napoli said.


The Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights, home of Eliza Jumel, the second wife of Aaron Burr.

After the Constitution’s passage, Hamilton set up the State Department, organized the War Department, created the United States Customs Service, the Coast Guard and the Treasury Department.

“Hamilton was the man,” Mr. Napoli said.

Hamilton’s role in creating a strong central government is covered, as well as the Reynolds Pamphlet from 1797, in which Hamilton admitted to an affair and the extortion by the woman’s husband that followed. “He essentially says: ‘I’m not a crook. I’m an adulterer,’” Mr. Napoli said.

Around this time, Mr. Napoli leads the tour outside and down Edgecombe Avenue, along Highbridge Park, describing the neighborhood that has grown up around the mansion. He points out the so-called Triple Nickel building, at 555 Edgecombe, where Count Basie and Lena Horne both lived; Yankee Stadium rising in the distance; and Rucker Park, where Julius Erving played basketball. Up 150th Street and onto St. Nicholas Avenue, we pass Tsion Cafe, where his group can stop for coffee.


Kitchen items made of ceramics, pewter and copper, at the Morris-Jumel Mansion.

The mile-long walking tour wends past the corner at 143rd Street and Convent Avenue, where Hamilton built his Federal-style house, now the Hamilton Grange National Memorial, moving uptown to the quiet country from Wall Street in 1802. That large yellow three-story home is where he lived after his eldest son, Philip, died in a duel, defending his father’s honor over the sex scandal. It’s also where Hamilton spent the last two years of his life.

To make room for development, the home was moved a block from its original site in 1889, its balconies removed and the house squeezed next to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, where a large statue of Hamilton now stands out front. In 2008, the house was moved once more to West 141st Street and Hamilton Terrace, where it seems to have found its permanent spot.

Inside the restored home, Mr. Napoli tells about the country’s first national debt — to pay its soldiers and the countries that helped finance the Revolutionary War. He recounts Washington’s death and eventually Hamilton’s duel with Burr in Weehawken, N.J. Short of taking us in a rowboat across the Hudson to the scene of the duel, Mr. Napoli paints a vivid portrait of that 1804 showdown, using his own torso to show where Hamilton was fatally wounded.

Finally, he tells us how for 50 years after Hamilton’s death, his wife, Eliza, would collect his writings and tell his story, the one that Mr. Napoli has now passed on to us. We view the period rooms, decorated with Eliza’s actual mirrored serving tray and re-creations of Hamilton’s writing table, quill pens in place.


The Tsion Cafe at St. Nicholas Avenue, where tourgoers can have a break during the three-hour tour.

And then it’s off once again, this time around the corner to the Grange, a hip new bar and restaurant where his followers can have a convivial drink and maybe brunch. They can even continue the conversation and ask questions of Mr. Napoli, who’s only just getting started.


The Grange, a bar and restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue and West 141st Street, is one of two final stops in the Hamilton walking tour.

Correction: January 21, 2016

An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated the location of the Morris-Jumel Mansion. It is in Washington Heights, not Hamilton Heights.
Jimmy Napoli leads two Hamilton tours, one in Harlem and the other around Wall Street, mostly on Saturdays and Tuesdays starting at 11 a.m. They are held rain or shine and can be booked online; hamiltonsnewyork­.com.

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