The Grange: A Historic Greathouse
A rustic gravel lane, shaded by duel rows of lignum vitae and mahogany trees, intrigued us one day as we were exploring St. Croix. We turned in and were richly rewarded with our first sighting of the historic 18th century Greathouse known as The Grange. Amazingly, Jane, the custodian of Estate Grange (now a private residence), bade us park the car and she would give us an impromptu tour.
The house, Jane pointed out, features a cornerstone that suggests it was built in 1761. Government records, however, establish that the house changed hands in 1738, thus refuting the later date. The actual age of the house remains unknown, but the Trust for Public Land believes that the existing house was built in 1753, before it was fully restored by its current owners. Their family acquired the estate in 1928, carefully maintaining the property while keeping in mind its historical significance as the birthplace and childhood home of one of the nation’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton.
The most interesting facet of Estate Grange to us was that for several years it was the home of Rachel Fawcett Levine, mother of the great American statesman, Alexander Hamilton. She is buried on the premises and a gravestone was erected in the 1930’s to commemorate her death. According to the St. Croix Landmark’s Society, Hamilton’s mother was married on St. Croix at Estate Grange to a much older and cruel husband, John Michael Lavien, who owned a small sugar plantation. After five years of marriage and the bearing of one son to Lavien, Rachel left him when she was 21 and moved back to Nevis with her mother to her old home. There she met James Hamilton, and the two fell in love and moved to St. Kitts to live together. Since times were financially bad in parts of the Caribbean, James Hamilton found it hard to make a living for his family and was sent on a legal mission to St. Croix. Rachel came with him, bringing their two sons. After some months, Hamilton returned to the British islands and Rachel and her sons stayed on St. Croix with relatives.
On the north side of the structure, in an area that was once a formal botanical garden, stands the original plantation bell which was cast in 1761 in Amsterdam. The property also houses a monument in memory of Danish gendarmes who died here during an outbreak of yellow fever in 1886 when the Estate Grange was used as a convalescent house for those stricken at the Christiansted barracks. We admired the grounds as we made our way toward the greathouse, anticipating its bounty of artifacts, stories and glimpses into St. Croix’s past.
The main level of the greathouse is served by a grand staircase ascending from the front door on the southwest corner of the building, which was added in the early 20th century. At the top of the stairs is the dining room. Jane explained that the dining table, which seats 14 persons without its leaves in place, once resided at the Government House in St. Thomas. It was purchased at auction soon after Denmark sold the Virgin Islands to the United States in 1917. At one time, this room was a gallery, as its abundance of windows attests. It was converted to a dining room in 1929 by its then new owners who bought The Grange after their house in Beeston Hill was destroyed by the devastating hurricane of 1928.
East of the dining room is the high-ceilinged living room, or drawing room as it was known. This room is highlighted by a hand carved mahogany loveseat that at one time graced the Government House in Christiansted. There is also a large French armoire amongst the many other period pieces here. In the east wall, a shuttered doorway opens precipitously on a vista of flat green fields that once were planted with sugar cane, St. Croix’s cash crop during the colonial period. A small conclave of converted slave quarters sits in a vale on the southeast corner of the property.
The Grange greathouse has five bedrooms and four baths. Each bedroom has an old West Indian four poster bed and an armoire. High ceilings provide storage capability built into the walls above eye level in each bedroom. One of the bathrooms even features an old six-foot bathtub. The basement level is comprised of two handsome, stone and coral-walled bedrooms as well as myriad storage areas. Arched window openings and passageways lend a unique architectural flavor and a decidedly non-basement-like appearance to this level.
Emerging back outside on the western exposure, we viewed the foundation of the old cookhouse which has been capped and converted to an above-ground cistern. An overseers cottage, built of the most abundant local materials of the time, rubble and coral, stands to the southwest. We meandered, trance-like, through the property, awed by the floral abundance we saw in every nook and cranny, including a lily pond in an antique cauldron beside the front door. Finally, and sadly, we said “goodbye” to our new friend, Jane, promised to return soon and drove off slowly down the lane. As a magical exclamation point to our adventure, a white-tailed deer trotted out of the bush and watched us nonchalantly as we made our way back to the 21st century.
You can learn more about Alexander Hamilton by visiting The Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society’s website. As for Estate Grange and The Grange greathouse, the Trust for Public Land plans to acquire the property for the National Park Service for designation as a National Historic Site. According to their website, they are “working closely with Virgin Islands and federal government representatives on an acquisition partnership to protect this important property through a combination of local, federal, and private support”.