Gramercy Park, Manhattan (History)

neighborhoods_manhattan_gramercy_park_300x300Gramercy Park /ˌɡræmərsi ˈpɑrk/ is the name of both a small, fenced-in private park and the surrounding neighborhood that is referred to also as Gramercy, in the borough of Manhattan in New York City, United States.

The approximately 2 acres (0.81 ha) park, located in the Gramercy Park Historic District, is one of two private parks in New York City – the other is Sunnyside Gardens Park in Queens – as well as one of only three in the state; only people residing around the park who pay an annual fee have a key, and the public is not generally allowed in – although the sidewalks of the streets around the park are a popularjogging, strolling and dog-walking route.

The eponymous neighborhood, which is divided between New York City’s Manhattan Community Board 5 and Manhattan Community Board 6, is generally perceived to be a quiet and safe area.

The neighborhood, associated historic district, and park have generally received positive reviews. Calling it “a Victorian gentleman who has refused to die”, Charlotte Devree in the New York Times said that “There is nothing else quite like Gramercy Park in the country.” When the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission created the Gramercy Park Historic District in 1966, they quoted from John B. Pine’s 1921 book,The Story of Gramercy Park:


Origin and development

 Some of the original townhouses surrounding the park, these at #1 through #4 Gramercy Park were built between 1844 and 1850

The area which is now Gramercy Park was once in the middle of a swamp. In 1831 Samuel B. Ruggles, a developer and advocate of open space, proposed the idea for the park due to the northward growth of Manhattan. He bought the property,which was then a farm called “Gramercy Farm”, from James Duane, son of the former mayor, father of James Chatham Duane, and a descendant of Peter Stuyvesant. To develop the property, Ruggles spent $180,000 to landscape it, draining the swamp and causing about a million horsecart loads of earth to be moved. He then laid out “Gramercy Square”, deeding possession of the square to the owners of the 66 parcels of land he had plotted to surround it, and sought tax-exempt status for the park, which the city’s Board of Aldermen granted in 1832. It was the second private square created in the city, afterHudson Square, also known as St. John’s Park, which was laid out by the parish of Trinity Church. Numbering of the lots began at #1 on the northwest corner, on Gramercy Park West, and continued counter-clockwise: south down Gramercy Park West, then west to east along Gramercy Park South (East 20th Street), north up Gramercy Park East, and finally east to west along Gramercy Park North (East 21st Street).

As part of his overall plan for the square, Ruggles also brought about the creation by the state legislature of Lexington Avenueand Irving Place, two new north-south roads laid out between Third and Fourth Avenues and feeding into his development at the top and bottom of the park. The new streets reduced the number of lots around the park from 66 to 60.

Gramercy Park was enclosed by a fence in 1833, but construction on the surrounding lots did not begin until the 1840s, due to the Panic of 1837. In one regard this was fortunate, since the opening of the Croton Aqueduct in 1842 allowed new townhouses to be constructed with indoor plumbing.

The first formal meeting of the park’s trustees took place in 1844 at 17 Union Square (West), the mansion of James W. Gerard, which is no longer extant, having been demolished in 1938. By that time, landscaping had already begun with the hiring of James Virtue in 1838, who planted privet inside the fence as a border; by 1839 pathways had been laid out and trees and shrubs planted. Major planting also took place in 1844 – the same year the park’s gates were first locked – followed by additional landscaping by Brinley & Holbrook in 1916. These plantings had the effect of softening the parks’ prim formal design.

Later 19th century events

In 1863, in an unprecedented gesture, Gramercy Park was opened to Union soldiers involved in putting down the violent Draft Riots which broke out in New York, after conscription was introduced for the Civil War. Gramercy Park itself had been protected with howitzers by troops from the Eighth Regiment Artillery, while the 152nd New York Volunteers encamped in nearby Stuyvesant Square.

At #34 and #36 Gramercy Park (East) are two of New York’s first apartment buildings, designed in 1883 and 1905. In addition, #34 is the oldest existing co-operative apartment building in the city. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, nineteenth century brownstones andcarriage houses abound, though the 1920s brought the onset of tenant apartments and skyscrapers to the area.

In 1890 an attempt was made to run a cable car through the park to connect Irving Place to Lexington Avenue. The bill passed the New York State Legislature, but was vetoed by Governor David B. Hill. Twenty-two years later, in 1912, another proposal would have connected Irving Place and Lexington Avenue, bisecting the park, but was defeated through the efforts of the Gramercy Park Association, now called Gramercy Neighborhood Associates.

In the late 19th century, numerous charitable institutions influential in setting social policy were located on 23rd Street, and some, such as the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, still remain in the area. Calvary Church on Gramercy Park North has a food pantry that opens its doors once a week for one hour, and the Brotherhood Synagogue on Gramercy Park South served as an Underground Railroadstation before the Civil War, when the building was a Quaker meeting house, established in 1859.

In the 20th century

The Hotel Irving, at 26 Gramercy Park South, was constructed c.1903. Among its guests was a young Preston Sturges, who stayed there in 1914 while his mother lived withIsadora Duncan at the Ritz Hotel. A townhouse on the north side of the Park was provided for Duncan’s dancing school, and their studio was nearby on the northeast corner of Park Avenue South (then Fourth Avenue) and 23rd Street. The Hotel Irving was converted to a co-op in 1986.

In the center of the park is a statue of one of the area’s most famous residents, Edwin Booth, which was dedicated on November 13, 1918. Booth was one of the great Shakespearean actors of 19th Century America, as well as the brother of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. The mansion at #16 Gramercy Park (South) was purchased by Booth and renovated by Stanford White at his request to be the home of the Players’ Club, which Booth founded. He turned over the deed to the building on New Year’s Eve 1888.[35][42] Next door at #15 Gramercy Park (South) is the National Arts Club, established in 1884 in a Victorian Gothic mansion which was originally home to the New York Governor and 1876 Presidential Candidate, Samuel J. Tilden. Tilden had steel doors and an escape tunnel to East 19th Street to protect himself from the sometimes violent politics of the day.

On September 20, 1966, a part of the Gramercy Park neighborhood was designated an historic district, the boundaries of which were extended on July 12, 1988. The district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. A proposed extension of the district would include nearby buildings such as the Manhattan Trade School for Girls, now the School of the Future, and the Children’s Court and Family Court buildings, now part of Baruch College, all on East 22nd Street.

In 1983, Fantasy Fountain, a 4.5 ton bronze sculpture by Greg Wyatt was installed in the park.

One of the most significant steam explosions in New York City occurred near Gramercy Park in 1989, killing two Consolidated Edison workers and one bystander, and causing damage of several million dollars to area buildings.

In 2012, 18 Gramercy Park (South) – formerly the Salvation Army’s Parkside Evangeline Residence for Women and then a facility of the School of Visual Arts – was sold to Eyal Ofer’s Global Holdings and the Zeckendorf brothers for $60 million for conversion into condominium apartments by Robert A. M. Stern, including a $42 million penthouse duplex.The 17-story building is the tallest around the park and dates from 1927.