Travel often requires a healthy imagination. A tour-bus guide can point out the site of a Revolutionary event in Boston, but not a trace remains. A plaque in Philadelphia can show you the spot of the country's first circus, but it stands next to a parking garage. See Dolley Madison's Washington home, but don't be disappointed to find it covered by the shadow of a concrete monstrosity that houses federal offices.
That's what makes New York's Gramercy Park neighborhood so fabulous. It shows you the way it really was. And you can easily take it all in on a weekend visit.
In this section of Manhattan, between 14th and 23rd streets, from Third Avenue to Park Avenue South, no imagination is required.
It is the city's 150-year-old movie set with no false fronts, New York's time machine, permanently stuck somewhere between 1850 and 1890. While Manhattan has undergone monumental changes over the last century, Gramercy Park has steadfastly refused to move forward.
It is, writes architecture critic Paul Goldberger, "probably the only quarter in New York in which one might still today actually sustain the illusion of being in London."
The London, that is, of the 19th century.
This is the place where Mark Twain hung out and Stephen Crane shared a studio apartment with three artists; where famed stage actor Edwin Booth sought refuge after his brother assassinated President Abraham Lincoln; and where silent screen star Theda Bara lived.
It's also where George Bellows painted and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens grew up and Stanford White nurtured his architectural ideas.
It's where Teddy Roosevelt was born, where Eleanor Roosevelt was baptized and where presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden awaited a victory party that never happened.
It's where O. Henry got drunk, where F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald partied, and where Edith Wharton was born; she eventually portrayed New York's upper-crust lifestyle in "The Age of Innocence," some of which takes place in Gramercy Park. (The very first line of the book, in fact, puts the reader in the grand Academy of Music on 14th Street.)
More recently, it's been home to James Cagney and the Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton.
But most of all, Gramercy Park is a testament to one man who valued a neighborhood of peace and quiet in a city he correctly believed would soon explode in both population and construction.
That man was Samuel Ruggles, and the rules he wrote in 1831 to govern the rectangular plot of green and trees that gave the neighborhood its name are still followed today. Gramercy Park is the sole private park in New York; only neighborhood residents are allowed to pass through its wrought-iron gates, which have been standing since 1844.
Start at the park
But even though you can't get inside the park, don't stay away from the area. Stroll around the outside, pausing to tickle the noses of the squirrels that poke their heads through the bars looking for a handout. Then walk around the side streets for delightful discoveries.
The park itself is a logical starting point. In the early 1800s the land was part of the holdings of Sam Ruggles, a brilliant native of Connecticut who graduated from Yale in 1814 at the age of 14, moved to New York to practice law, and by 31 had done so well in real estate that he was able to retire from his practice.
That same year, 1831, he drew up plans for a large tract of land he owned between 19th and 24th streets, a hilly, swampy area that was a good hike away from the populated areas of lower Manhattan. The name "Gramercy" comes from the Dutch "Krom Moerasje," meaning "crooked little knife-shaped swamp." The park, between 20th and 21st Streets, was plotted in the middle of about 60 housing lots; Ruggles' deed stipulated that only brick or stone residences be built, and it listed what could not invade his territory: livery stables, breweries, public museums, slaughterhouses, smith shops or "any other trade or business dangerous or offensive to the neighboring inhabitants."
The Irving connection
In the center of the land he cut two wide north-south streets, naming one Lexington Avenue after the Revolutionary battle, the other Irving Place for his friend, author Washington Irving. (One house at 49 Irving Place bears a huge plaque identifying it incorrectly as Washington Irving's home; his nephew lived there. Across the street, though, is Washington Irving High School, notable for a tremendous bust of Irving outside and for at least two famous alumnae, Claudette Colbert and Whoopi Goldberg.)
In the middle of the park is a statue of Edwin Booth as Hamlet. Booth lived at 16 Gramercy Park South (the streets bordering the park are Gramercy Park North, South, East and West). The townhouse dates to 1845; Booth took it over in 1888 and had Stanford White remodel it into the Players Club, primarily for actors, although members have included such diverse folks as Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and Gen. William T. Sherman.
Next door, at No. 15, is the National Arts Club. It was once the home of Samuel Tilden, who resigned as governor of New York to run for president in 1876. He actually out-polled Rutherford B. Hayes, but Hayes had one more electoral vote to capture the office. The Poetry Society of America is also housed here.
No. 19 is reminiscent of the residence of New York's top society couple, Mrs. and Mr. Julius Beaufort. You would not know the Beauforts unless you have read "The Age of Innocence," Edith Wharton's 1921 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The Beauforts' house, Wharton wrote, was a "heavy, brown-stoned palace," the most distinguished home in New York.
In reality, No. 19 was the home of Stuyvesant and Mary Fish, who ruled society in the 1880s and '90s. Mrs. Fish is credited with introducing a new informality to the social scene, including shortening the traditional dinner from several hours to 50 minutes. Caroline Klein, in her "Gramercy Park: An American Bloomsbury," writes that Mary Fish once held an elegant, sit-down dinner for a houseful of dogs.
Around the corner, at 34 Gramercy Park East, is one of New York's first cooperative apartment houses. The Gramercy, a red brick Victorian design with turrets, was built in 1883. Walk into the lobby to see the stained glass on the ceiling and the tiled floor. A sign outside notes that James Cagney lived here from 1965 to 1968; Margaret Hamilton and John Carradine were also residents.
On the north side is the Gramercy Park Hotel, built in 1923 on the site of Stanford White's home. White was murdered in 1906 by millionaire Harry K. Thaw, who objected to White's liaison with Evelyn Nesbit before Thaw married her. The killing led to the first Trial of the Century.
The hotel bar was a favorite haunt of Babe Ruth's; Humphrey Bogart's first wedding was conducted in the hotel; and 8-year-old John F. Kennedy lived there with his family just before his father left to become ambassador to England.
A line of homes on the west side dates to Ruggles' time. No. 1, from 1850, was the residence of Valentine Mott, the country's top surgeon before the Civil War and founder of Bellevue Hospital. No. 4 (1847) was the home of James Harper, one-time mayor of New York and a founder of the Harper publishing house. Two lamps in front of No. 4 are a reminder of the time when the lights told the public where the mayor lived.
A block south of the park is a stretch of 19th Street known as Block Beautiful. The renovated homes, many pre-Civil War, make up one of the most attractive and interesting streets in the city. No. 132 was, at different times, the home of Theda Bara, Helen Hayes, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, and writer Ida M. Tarbell. F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, were frequently found at No. 131, the home of a critic and literary agent. George Bellows had his studio at No. 146.
Tavern with staying power
At 66 Irving Place is Pete's Tavern, which began in 1864 as Healy's and is reputed to be the place O. Henry (real name William Sydney Porter) wrote "The Gift of the Magi" -- although some say that took place at No. 55 across the street, where he lived. Customers kept the place going during Prohibition by entering through a secret door in an adjoining florist shop.
Fourteenth Street was the site of two famous buildings: the Academy of Music, a 2,500-seat theater that established the area as the city's cultural hub, and Tammany Hall, made famous by Boss Tweed. Both are long gone, replaced by the massive headquarters of Con Edison. An interesting, and free, energy museum is in the Con Ed building; it contains some of Thomas Edison's inventions and has a simulation of a walk beneath a New York street.
Two other spots are worth visiting, even if one is kind of a fake. Teddy Roosevelt was born in a brownstone at 28 E. 20th St. in 1858. The house was razed in 1916 and replaced by a commercial building. But the site was eventually bought by a citizens' group, the building knocked down, and a replica of Roosevelt's home put up, with the interior restored to the time of Roosevelt's boyhood. It's run by the National Park Service.
One block north on Park Avenue South is Calvary Church, a Gothic Revival church from the 1840s. Edith Wharton was baptized here in 1862; her best friend, Emelyn Washburn, was the daughter of the church rector, who appears briefly in "The Age of Innocence" as the Rev. Dr. Ashmore. Eleanor Roosevelt was baptized here in 1884. The church has a lopped-off look: The wooden twin spires deteriorated quickly and were removed around 1860.
By the way, toward the end of Wharton's book is a scene in which main protagonist Newland Archer is taken to Union Square to catch a trolley. The square is right on the edge of the Gramercy Park neighborhood and has a long, interesting history as a transportation hub, the site of labor protests, and the resting place of a number of famous statues. Ruggles was as instrumental in its development as he was in Gramercy Park's.
But that's another story.
Pub Date: 9/15/96