HamilTEN Questions with Bryan Barreras
Bryan Barreras began his career as a mechanical engineer in Houston before attending law school at New York University. He has spent most of the last nineteen years as a lawyer. He also serves on the board of the Bloomingdale School of Music in New York City, which has been providing open access to music education for more than fifty years. After seeing Hamilton: An American Musical in January 2016, he began exploring historic sites related to Alexander Hamilton and to the musical. This resulted in a location guide, called Where Was The Room Where It Happened?, for others to learn about and easily visit these locations as well. This is Barreras's first book. Bryan Barreras lives in Manhattan with his wife, two children, and their Jack Russell terrier.
HamilTEN Questions with Bryan Barreras
1. How did you first learn about Alexander Hamilton?
I don’t remember studying about Hamilton at all in school, and my oldest memory of any history about him is probably a line from an SNL video called Lazy Sunday - “You can call us Aaron Burr, from the way we’re droppin’ Hamiltons”. My interest in Hamilton was a direct result of the Broadway show Hamilton: An American Musical. I saw the show with my wife and kids in January, and we absolutely loved everything about it. In addition to listening to the cast album every day, I started reading about Hamilton’s life (including reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton that inspired the show), and it was through this that I began to appreciate how important Hamilton was to our country.
2. What inspired you to write Where Was the Room Where It Happened? (WWTRWIH)?
While reading about Hamilton, I became intrigued by how many locations appeared repeatedly throughout his life (and the lives of other important figures of the era). Richmond Hill was one of George Washington’s headquarters AND it was used by the British after they took Manhattan AND it was John Adams’ residence when he was vice president AND it was Aaron Burr’s residence at the time of his fateful duel with Hamilton. So I took advantage of living in New York City to start visiting and learning more about these sites. I found myself backtracking and visiting some sites repeatedly, and wishing that I had more information about each site. I started to pull information about the sites together to satisfy my own curiosity, and it quickly became apparent that crowds of others were also visiting these sites and could benefit from having this information as well. There wasn’t a guide offering all of this, so I decided to write it myself.
3. What do you hope readers take away from your location guide?
A full appreciation of the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda. My book discusses 31 locations (without even delving into individual Philadelphia locations), and the show covers 32 years (if you ignore the brief references to Hamilton’s life before he arrived in America) of the life of the man about whom Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (foreign minister of France) said “I consider Napoleon, Fox, and Hamilton the three greatest men of our epoch and, if I were forced to decide between the three, I would give without hesitation the first place to Hamilton.” To do justice to all of the most important moments of Hamilton’s life in less than three hours, and to do so in a universally-praised, culturally contemporary musical that has created a community of fans that bridges so many different groups, is a once-in-a-generation achievement.
4. What was the most interesting thing that you learned about Alexander Hamilton's life as you wrote WWTRWIH?
The man was everywhere, and he seemed to have his hand in almost every important aspect of, first, the colonies’ war for independence, and second, the design and development of our governmental, legal, political, industrial and economic systems.
Probably my favorite example involves Benedict Arnold, whose name is now synonymous with treason but who, during the Revolutionary War, was a seasoned commander who rose to the level of Major General and who in 1780 was given the command of West Point, a strategic post that gave him authority over the entire Hudson River above New York City (which the British controlled). Not only was Hamilton with George Washington in Arnold’s headquarters when Arnold’s treason was discovered, but he was sent by Washington (with James McHenry) galloping away on horseback in what proved to be a futile attempt to overtake Arnold before he could reach safety with the British army. Everywhere.
5. Of the locations you mention in your book that no longer stand, which do you most wish still existed?
While I would love to see what Richmond Hill looked like, I would have to say Fort George. Seeing a Revolutionary-era fort, and standing there imagining Hamilton and his King’s College mates stealing two dozen cannons from the fort in the dead of night (“Yo, let’s steal their cannons!”) would be thrilling! Of course it would be a different view - while Fort George was located at the shoreline back then, it would now be several blocks inland due to landfilling over the years (part of which was done with the materials from the fort when it was torn down). The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House now sits where Fort George was located.
6. Which Hamilton site surprised you the most?
Elizabethtown, New Jersey (now split into the cities of Elizabeth and Union). This was the last site added to my book, and I didn’t really know anything about it other than what I had read in Chernow’s book about Hamilton doing his college preparatory studies at the Elizabethtown Academy shortly after arriving in America. It wasn’t until I visited that I realized how well-preserved the locations there are.
I walked through the cemetery where Hamilton spent mornings preparing for his classes at the academy (and where there are still many amazingly well-preserved tombstones from the Revolutionary era). I visited Boxwood Hall, where Hamilton would visit with Elias Boudinot and which still stands in its original form (and original location). And I saw Liberty Hall, where Hamilton visited and stayed with the Livingston family (though after his time at the academy - the home was still under construction then) - while the house itself has been expanded over the years, you can still visit the rooms that existed in Hamilton’s time (they were not torn down; the house was expanded around them). And I visited them all in a single day and was back in Manhattan before rush hour - it was a great and enlightening day!
7. What has been your favorite Hamilton place to visit? And which Hamilton site are you most looking forward to visiting in the future?
I have most enjoyed visiting Morris-Jumel Mansion. It has historical significance, being the oldest remaining house in Manhattan, and it is interesting to see all the rooms and artifacts in the house and learn what happened there. But for me the main draw is the beauty of the location. The grounds are peaceful and gorgeous, and there’s often a nice breeze due to the elevation of the site - I always walk on Sylvan Terrace (a short, quiet and picturesque block right by the mansion) to get there. And it’s the only location that connects Hamilton to Lin-Manuel Miranda (like my book tries to do) - the folks at the mansion gave Miranda access to Aaron Burr’s former room, and he wrote a portion of the musical there.
I would love to visit Nevis and St. Croix, where Hamilton spent his childhood. I have actually been to Nevis before, about 10 years ago, but I was only there for a few hours and with no knowledge of Hamilton’s history there. I would like to go again, and to also visit St. Croix, with a focus on Hamilton’s life on the islands.
8. Of the Hamilton locations that didn't get a reference in the Hamilton musical, which are you most curious to explore?
Paterson, New Jersey. Hamilton had shared a meal with Washington and Lafayette during the Revolutionary War by the Great Falls of the Passaic River. When Hamilton was Treasury Secretary, he promoted the establishment of industry and manufacturing in America, and he settled on the area around the falls as the location for an industrial city, leading to the creation of Paterson. I am most intrigued by the sites that play multiple roles in Hamilton’s life, and Paterson fills this criteria. The Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park was established in 2011 in recognition of the part that Paterson played in our nation’s history. And they have an Alexander Hamilton statue…
9. What aspects of Alexander Hamilton do you relate to the most?
Other than the obvious - he was a lawyer and a writer, and he studied and lived in New York City - Hamilton became more focused on spending time with his family as he grew older, and so have I. While I would not try to draw a comparison between any aspect of my professional life and Hamilton’s (though I take some comfort that very few would compare well with his accomplishments), I worked a great deal, including the occasional all-nighter, earlier in my career, especially when I worked in a law firm. And like Hamilton, most of my work has involved writing in one form or another. Like Hamilton, I find that being around my family has become more important to me later in life (and my daughter’s upcoming departure for college next year brings this into focus for me).
10. If you could magically visit any site as it was during Hamilton's lifetime, which would it be?
There are so many to choose from! I would love to see Fort George, or have a drink in a bustling Fraunces Tavern full of Revolutionary soldiers, or to look offshore and see that “British Admiral Howe’s got…thirty-two thousand troops in New York Harbor”. But I’ll stick with the family theme and pick the Grange. Living in Manhattan, I cannot imagine what a sparsely-populated and heavily-wooded Harlem Heights would look like. To see the Grange, with its expansive river views from its elevated location, and to walk on the grounds that Hamilton meticulously landscaped and cultivated, would be an incredible experience! Hamilton accomplished amazing things in his military, political and professional careers - possibly more than any other man in American history - but it is the Alexander Hamilton that loved spending time with his family that I prefer to think of, and the Grange symbolizes that for me.