by Elizabeth Gariti
To most New Yorkers, Gracie Mansion is known as the Mayor’s House. Since 1942, when Fiorello H. LaGuardia moved in, nine mayors have lived there, until Rudolph Guiliani’s term ended in 2001. Michael Bloomberg opted not to move to Gracie Mansion (staying lodged comfortably in his townhouse on East 79th St.) but opened it up as the “People’s House” in 2002. Currently, the Mansion is used to host visiting dignitaries and special events. It is also open to the public for tours: General Tours every Wednesday from 10-2 and Tea Tours, available for groups on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
In my mind, Gracie Mansion has always been synonymous with glittering parties for diplomatic glitterati—a place with shining lights and lots of limos. But, as is the case with so many New Yorkers and prominent attractions, I’d never actually been there. I decided to take the tour.
On approach, Gracie Mansion, located in Carl Shurz Park, seems rather like a small country farmhouse. But, when you stand on its wide wrap-around porches, the Manson’s breezy expansiveness becomes apparent. Featuring floor-to-ceiling windows designed to open directly onto the wide porches, and broad planks of wood used for the shutters, siding and interior, Gracie Mansion was originally built in 1799 as a “country” summer house by the Scottish shipping magnate, Archibald Gracie. His family, along with other wealthy families like the Schermerhorns and the Astors, traveled by sailboat, five miles out of the city, up the East River to get to their retreats. There was a dock at the end of 86th Street for their boats.
Gracie Mansion and Carl Shurz Park are located above Hell Gate, a turbulent stretch of water where the East River, Harlem River and the Long Island Sound meet. The land, which originally sloped all the way down to the river, was deeded in 1646 by the Dutch West India Company to Sybout Claessan, who named the jutting riverbank “Horn’s Hook” after his village of Hoorn in Holland. The first house was built in 1770 by Jacob Walton, a wealthy Flatbush merchant and British Loyalist. During the Revolution, Washington seized the Walton property to build a fort and set up cannons. The Walton residence was destroyed during a British attack in 1776.
Gracie, one of the wealthiest men in the city at the time, bought the land in 1798 and completed his two-story mansion in 1799. Gracie often held elegant parties for his neighbors and exclusive circle of friends including Alexander Hamilton, John Quincy Adams, Joseph Bonaparte and Washington Irving.
Financial losses forced Gracie to sell the estate in 1823 to Joseph Foulke. In 1857, it was purchased by Noah Wheaton. After Wheaton’s death in 1896, the City appropriated it and incorporated its 11 acres of grounds into the surrounding park.
The house has served as a park comfort station, an ice cream stand and provided classrooms for immigrants studying English. Eventually, it became the first Museum of the City of New York. When the museum moved, Robert Moses convinced the City to designate the Mansion as the official residence of the mayor.
Today, Gracie Mansion, one of the oldest surviving wood houses in Manhattan, is owned by the NYC Parks Department and is operated by the Gracie Mansion Conservancy. The Conservancy is a private not-for-profit corporation established in 1981 to preserve and maintain Gracie Mansion.
Built and restored in the Federal style of the early 19th Century, the refreshing beauty and luxury of the Mansion becomes even more evident once you step inside.
Not officially a museum, the house is a combination of the functional and the preserved. Rare paintings and antiques are interspersed with modern furniture, all representative of the era.
The General Tour is given to small groups (reservations required) by expert volunteer docents who are well-versed in historical information and modern-day anecdotes. The tour covers the downstairs of the main house, the newly-accessible 2nd floor (formerly the Mayor’s living quarters) and the Susan E. Wagner wing, opened in 1996 and built under the guidance of Mayor Wagner’s wife.
The Federal style is known for its bright colors, intricately patterned interiors and faux finishes. Gracie Mansion is a prime example. There is an exquisitely refurbished faux marble pattern on the wooden floor of Gracie Mansion’s foyer that would actually have been painted on a large piece of broadcloth in the 19th Century for easy maintenance.
In many of the rooms, cornices and trims are elaborately detailed with replications of wheat, garlands, Greek urns and pineapples—all symbols of abundance, wealth and hospitality during that time. Another symbol of the period represented the country’s newfound independence in the form of an eagle holding the ball and chain of tyranny in its mouth. Gracie Mansion has several good examples of these.
Many elements of the Federal style existed to expand the available 19th-Century lighting. Chandeliers were made of glittering crystal to bounce candle light from all angles. Subsequently, symmetry is used as chandeliers were hung across from rounded, convex mirrors to reflect the light back into the room. A sign of Federal-era luxury is the use and placement of glass on walls, light fixtures and furniture. The glass objects in every room of the Mansion are a good indicator of the Gracie family’s wealth.
One of the most striking rooms in the Mansion is the Dining Room. It’s a study in cool green, and all four walls are covered with an elaborate mural called “The Gardens of France”. It’s like being surrounded by a continuous painting with no frames. The mural is actually comprised of authentic 19th Century wallpaper from 1836, made in France by using paint blocks. The wallpaper has a silk backing, which allows it to be peeled from the wall in one piece. Originally it was hanging in a Federal-style house on the Hudson, and the owners donated it to Gracie Mansion.
The upstairs, while just as elegant, is not as formal as the downstairs, and gives a good idea of how the mayors lived. It is decorated in a wider variety of styles, mostly in keeping with the Federal era. It is now used to accommodate visiting dignitaries like Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Rosalyn Carter. Of note are the large colorful flowers covering the wallpaper of the State Sitting Room. The paper is contemporary, but it is made by the same company that made the wallpaper in the dining room. The State Bedroom is furnished with 19th Century bamboo furniture. There are no closets, because in the 19th Century, houses were taxed by the number of rooms, and closets were considered rooms. Mayor Lindsay’s daughter lived in the State Sitting Room and would complain about the lack of closets. The Country Bedroom, across the hall from the State Bedroom, is more simply furnished; representing what a bedroom would have looked like during the Gracies’ residence.
The Mansion is decorated with custom-made furniture from the period—some of it owned by the Gracies and the Wheatons. One especially rare item is a five-seat settee, discovered in the basement of City Hall and now sitting on the second-floor landing.
All the Early American period paintings and furniture are chosen with a New York theme. Either they were made by a New York artist or craftsman or depict a prominent New Yorker. A range of paintings are displayed from portraits of the Gracie family and prominent members of New York society to scenes of early New York City. There is a bookcase donated by the Hamilton Fish family in one of the sitting rooms off the ballroom, filled with books about New York City. Every time a book about the City is published, a copy is given to the Mayor, and Gracie Mansion houses most of these.
Of the four mayor’s residences in the country, (Los Angeles, Denver and Detroit have the others), Gracie Mansion is by far the most elaborate. (Even though he doesn’t live there, Mayor Bloomberg visits often—his favorite room is the Library.) It is an Upper East Side treasure and well worth the $7.00 tour to hear mayoral anecdotes and to imagine living like a dignitary or a 19th Century shipping magnate. Tours are by reservation only and often must be scheduled weeks in advance. To make reservations for the General or Tea Tours, call 212-570-4773.