For nearly eighty years Gracie Mansion has been known as the official residence of New York City’s Mayor, but this yellow wooden house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan has a storied history that begins way before the first Mayor moved in. Before a house was even built on the property inside what is now Carl Schulz Park, the land along the East River served as an important site for the Revolutionary War. The house was built in 1799 as a country home for the prosperous New York merchant Archibald Gracie. After the Gracies, ownership and the purpose of the home changed many times throughout the decades until finally in 1942 Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, moved into “The People’s House.” Untapped New York Insiders recently got to tour the historic home on a private guided tour and learn some of the secrets hidden within – join us for our next tour! Find out what we discovered here with the top ten secrets of Gracie Mansion:
1. Gracie Mansion Became the Mayoral Residence for “National Security” Reasons
In 1942, famous Parks Commissioner Robert Moses vehemently pushed city authorities to make this historic house the official residence of the Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, but LaGuardia had no interest in living there. Moses was eventually able to convince him to move for “national security” reasons.
The United States had recently entered World War II at the time, and Moses thought it would be much safer and easier to evacuate the mayor from Gracie in case of a Nazi attack, given its location by the water and out of the center of the city. This is not so outlandish, given that that Nazis did attempt to infiltrate Grand Central Terminal and its mythical control room. Many buildings in Manhattan went dark including the original Penn Station which blacked out all of its windows. Convinced, La Guardia moved in as the First Mayor of New York City resident of Gracie Mansion. He was so enamored with the house that he nicknamed it the “Little White House.”
2. Alexander Hamilton Died in Front of the Ballroom Fireplace
In 1804, after being shot in the infamous duel with Aaron Burr in Weehawken, New Jersey, Alexander Hamilton was brought to the home of the Bayard family, a prominent Anglican family on Jane Street in the West Village. It was in that house in front of the fireplace that Hamilton supposedly spent his last moments before dying the next day, on July 12th, 1804.
In 1966, when an addition to Gracie Mansion was constructed, the fireplace from the Bayard home was installed in the ballroom. The fireplace is one of many remnants left in New York City from that fateful duel, including the pistols that were used by Hamilton and Burr which are part of the permanent collection of JP Morgan Chase Headquarters.
3. It was the First Home of the Museum of the City of New York
The current home of the Museum of the City of New York on Fifth Avenue
After the Gracies two other families called the mansion home. The building was appropriated by the city in 1896 and was incorporated into the 11-acre Carl Schurz Park. After decades of serving as a concession stand and restrooms for the park, even as storage, it became the first home of the Museum of the City of New York in 1923.
Gracie Mansions was used by the institution until January 11, 1932 when it relocated to its current Fifth Avenue location. After the museum moved out, the NYC Department of Parks converted it into a historic house museum.
4. Secret Tunnels Beneath the Home
The land Gracie Mansion stands on, currently inside Carl Schurz Park, used to be called Hoorn’s Hook. It was owned by British Loyalist Jacob Walton who built his estate, Belview, on the property in 1770. At the time, the only way to get to the estate was by boat, as the city was five miles away in Lower Manhattan and no roads or public transportation reached so far north yet. Walton, who was a wealthy merchant, also built tunnels underneath the home which led to the East River. According to our tour guide at Gracie, it could have been used for smuggling goods, but it was probably used as a passage to the water for residents who were not used to New York’s frigid winters.
When the Revolutionary War broke out the Waltons escaped to Queens and the house was commandeered byGeorge Washington’s troops who turned into a colonial fortification. In the 1980s while conducting an archeological dig at Gracie Mansion an over 12-pound was found. The British cannonball is made of iron and now sits on the mantle of the historic yellow room.
5. Bloomberg was the first mayor since 1942 Not to Live in Gracie Mansion
Entrance to the 1960s addition to Gracie Mansion, where the public enters
Since the house became residence for the mayor in 1942, Mayor Bloomberg has been the only one not to live in it, breaking the tradition set by La Guardia. Bloomberg lived in his Beaux-Arts town house on East 79th Street deciding instead to raise funds to renovate the mansion and make it more accessible to the people as a house museum.
According to a New York Times article, Bloomberg believes that the mayor should pay for his own housing somewhere else, adding that he thinks it wrong “to take one of the great houses in this city away from the public.” Bloomberg held a campaign to raise funds to renovate Gracie into a house-museum, while he himself used it only to host events. Since the $7 million renovation overseen by decorator Jamie Drake in 2002, the number of tours increased as well as events held by city agencies and other non-profit groups.
6. The New York Post was Founded on Gracie’s Front Porch
In 1801, Archibald Gracie and Alexander Hamilton were very good friends and business partners. It was that year that Gracie hosted on his porch a meeting led by Hamilton and attended by members of the Federalist Party. The result of this meeting was the establishment of the New-York Evening Post, known today simply as New York Post.
So, not only did Alexander Hamilton found our nation’s first bank, but he also founded one of New York’s oldest newspapers in the residence of today’s “Little White House.” Along with the current New York Post, vestiges of The New-York Evening Post can be found in New York City in it’s old headquarters, including the Art Nouveau style building at 20 Vesey Street which the newspaper built in 1907.
7. The Original Yule Log was Filmed in Gracie Mansion
From 1966 to 1970, WPIX shot the original version of the television program The Yule Long in Gracie Mansion during Mayor John Lindsay’s term. The footage was shot on 16 millimeter film in a fire place in the house’s Peach Room. In 1970, WPIX reshot the Yule Log footage on 35 millimeter film after the original became worn down.
However, this time around, to get the full effect of the fire, the crew removed the protective screen in front of the fireplace causing a stray spark to damage the antique rug in the room. Afterwards, the Mayor did not let WPIX come back and reshoot the footage. From then on, the Yule Log was shot in an identical fireplace in California.
8. Gracie has Hosted Many Notable People
The Peach Room inside the 1960s addition
Since New York City’s mayors have been living in Gracie Mansion, the home has played host to many notable politicians and celebrities. Among them, Ronald Reagan, Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Martin Luther King Jr., Charlie Chaplin, James Brown, Sophia Loren, and Jay-Z, to name a few.
On our recent Insiders tour of the home, our guide informed us that Leonard Bernstein once played the historic piano which is located in the corner of the yellow room. The Huffington Post has a wonderful slideshow of the History of Gracie Mansion that includes images of these and many other guests at Gracie.
9. Gracie Mansion Used to be Much Smaller
A parlor inside the 1960s addition
In 1964, when Robert Wagner was mayor, he initiated plans for an addition to Gracie Mansion. This new two-story wing, attached to the end of the main house was later named the Susan B. Wagner wing in memory of former Mayor Wagner’s wife who passed away from lung cancer during the addition’s construction. Mott B. Schmidt was hired as lead architect while Edward Coe Embury, F. Burral Hoffman, and John Barrington Bayley (Landmarks Commission’s architect) were hired to ensure the details reflected the historic architecture of the main house.The addition and the historic home were originally two separate buildings. When Ed Koch was Mayor the two buildings were connected by what is now called the hyphen or dash, a small enclosed hallway.
In the main historic part of the house, there are many architectural and design quirks unique to the time period. For one, the wooden doors are stained and painted to look like they are mahogany when in fact they are made of a cheaper wood. In the grand foyer, the entrance used by the first family, the wooden floors are painted to mimic a black and white marble floor. Though Archibald Gracie was wealthy, he couldn’t afford the marble, and bare wood floors were not in style but were to be covered with a rug or painted.
A quirk that resulted from extending the house is that in the dining room, the chandelier and gilded mirror, which in every other room perfectly align, do not match up. Before electricity, the mirrors helped disperse light throughout the room by reflecting it from the chandelier. When the dining room was lengthened, the location of the fireplace, where the mirror hangs, and the chandelier which hangs above the center of the table, shifted.
1. There is an Exhibition Commemorating 100 Years Female Artistry
She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York is an exhibit of sixty works of art from female artist in New York City. The exhibition, which is spread throughout the residence, marks 100 years of women having the right to vote, a right granted in the Untied States with the passage of the 19th Amendment.
The works fall into four categories: contending with history, body as battleground, picturing people, and expanding abstraction. The mediums of art range from paintings and photographs to video and sculpture, even furniture. The art blends into the home as decorative pieces, after all this is a residence. In the blue parlor of the new addition you’ll find a sculpture by Simone Leigh placed in front of the window, a photograph by Diane Arbus hangs in the library of the historic wing near a set of Knoll lounge chairs designed by Florence Schust Knoll.
This article was written by Vera Penavic and Nicole Saraniero
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