Brief History of Gracie Mansion
and Its Conservancy
In 1799, a prosperous New York merchant named Archibald Gracie built a country house overlooking a sleepy, scenic bend in the East River, five miles north of what was then New York City. More than two centuries later, Gracie Mansion is a historic treasure in the heart of one of the world’s largest and most vibrant cities. It is one of the oldest surviving wood structures in Manhattan, a member of New York’s Historic House Trust, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Financial hardship caused in part by the trade barriers of the War of 1812 forced Gracie to sell his house in 1823 to Joseph Foulke and his family. In 1857, Noah Wheaton purchased the property and continued to use it as a country retreat. In 1896, the City of New York appropriated the estate due to the non-payment of taxes, incorporating its 11 acres into East River Park,which was renamed in 1910 for the German-American statesman Carl Schurz.
After decades of use as a concession stand and as restrooms for the Park, Gracie Mansion was restored and became the first home of the Museum of the City of New York. When the Museum moved to its Colonial Revival building on Fifth Avenue, Gracie Mansion became one of the first historic house museums run by the Parks Department. Its “power-brokering” Commissioner, Robert Moses, convinced City authorities to designate the house as the official residence of the Mayor. In 1942, Fiorello H. La Guardia and his family moved in, prompted in part by security precautions mandated by the United States’ entry into World War II.
Gracie Mansion was enlarged in 1966 with the addition of the Susan E. Wagner Wing, which includes a ballroom and two reception rooms dedicated to official events and public gatherings. After years of neglect and the continual erosion of any trace of history, Mayor Edward I. Koch and founding Chair Joan K. Davidson established the Gracie Mansion Conservancy in 1981 as a public/private partnership. Under its guidance, the first major restoration of the house was undertaken between 1981 and 1984. Besides creating a connection between the original house and the Wagner Wing, this effort included the display of art, furniture, and decorative objects either purchased or, more often, lent by the City’s many cultural institutions. The charter mandate of the Conservancy was not to seal the residence in the past (especially as there is no record of how it originally appeared inside), but to protect its history while accommodating change and progress by successive generations of New Yorkers.
In 2002, the interior and exterior of the “People’s House” were again restored, with increased accessibility to the public and City agencies. The arrival of the de Blasio-McCray household in 2014 restored Gracie’s place as an active, dynamic residence, where history is again being made and presented in ways first envisioned by Moses and La Guardia 75 years ago. Today, Gracie Mansion reclaims its place as what Mayor La Guardia described as New York’s “little White House.”
The Gracie Mansion Conservancy continues to operate as a charitable organization dedicated to enhancing and enlivening its namesake. Its mission is to preserve and honor Gracie Mansion’s Federal Period origins while also making sure it remains as forward-looking and welcoming as the city it serves. An increasing share of this work focuses on exploring the many different people and cultures whose contributions to Gracie mansion and New York at large have gone unrecognized for far too long. The Conservancy also works to improve the surrounding landscape and gardens and provide public programming and educational services, including publications and tours for local school students, especially those studying in New York State’s 7th grade social studies curriculum.
Welcome to the “People’s House.”