Welcome to Gracie Mansion!

The People’s House and Home To New York City’s Mayors Since 1942.


14min listen

This virtual tour takes us through the nine public rooms of Gracie Mansion as it has evolved along the shore of the East River since its initial construction in 1799.

That year a prosperous Scottish immigrant and New York trans-Atlantic trade merchant named Archibald Gracie built a country house on top of a sleepy, scenic bend overlooking Hellgate—and today the iconic RFK/Triborough Bridge– five miles north of what was then the city limits. The site was sacred to the Lenape tribe, coveted by the Dutch who called it “Horn’s Hook”, and later seized from a Tory household by General Washington as a strategic battery early in the Revolution, soon to be recaptured by the British Navy as an excavated cannonball on display readily testifies.

Federal convex mirror mounted on the yellow walls of the Gracie mansion yellow parlor. A cannon ball sits on a glass stand just below the mirror. Two black cache pots are positioned on the left and right of the cannonball.

Image courtesy of Ryan Lahiff

It was from the ruins of the Revolution that the Gracie family laid the foundation of today’s surviving household.

More than two centuries later, Gracie Mansion is one of the oldest surviving wooden structures in Manhattan, a member of New York’s Historic House Trust. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was among the first wave of city landmarks when designated on Sept. 20, 1966.

Though not really a “mansion” at all, especially if contrasted to the palatial masonry most often associated with such official homes, it is a textbook example of the American Federal-style residential architecture. It has a raised air-circulating ground level, hip roof, symmetrical two-story elevation of simple painted clapboard adorned only by a central entry door with elegant fanlight and side panels surrounded by an open veranda porch supported by thin Doric columns and crowned by a decorative balustrade inflected by Chinese Chippendale tracery.

Front door of Gracie Mansion. A yellow wooden door with elegant fanlight and side panels surrounded by an open veranda porch supported by thin Doric columns and crowned by a decorative balustrade inflected by Chinese Chippendale tracery. The door is flanked by two sack back black windsor porch chairs.

Image courtesy of Ryan Lahiff

In the year 1809, Mr. Gracie with his growing brood of six children expanded his county house with two new bedrooms and an enlarged parlor and shifted the entry from the southeast to the northeast as entered today.

And while we cannot say with certainty who served as architect, it could have been the much in demand John McComb Jr,  who designed the nearby home of Gracie’s fellow traveler Alexander Hamilton—known still as The Grange—and who went on to win the co-commission to design a new City Hall.

Or it could have been designed by its scandal-plagued builder, Ezra Weeks, who we can attribute with certainty for its construction.  We know that Weeks held slaves, whose bondage helped to build the residence still standing today as a place where history is made as well as measured.

We now know that Archibald Gracie also held slaves, whom he manumitted in 1800 and 1801 while evolving to become an ardent abolitionist in sync with the progressive positions held by more and more of his friends and political allies. This was a time in New York City and State history when the cry for freedom gained traction as exemplified in 1799 with Albany’s passage of “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, a copy of which has been on display since 2015.

Photo copy of a legal document : An act for the the Abolition of Slavery. Ink on aged parchment.

Financial hardship caused in part by the trade barriers of the War of 1812 forced Mr. Gracie to sell his house in 1823 to Joseph Foulke and from there, its use evolved in private hands until 1896, when the City appropriated the estate due to the non-payment of taxes.

The property was then incorporated into the 11 acres of East River Park, renamed in 1910 for Carl Schurz in honor of the German-American Civil War general, statesman, and early environmentalist.

After decades of various uses including concession stand and park restrooms, the wood-framed Mansion was restored and became the first home of the Museum of the City of New York from 1924 to 1936.

After that museum left for its present building on Fifth Avenue, the Parks Department’s “power-brokering” Commissioner, Robert Moses, used WPA funds to stabilize and upgrade the structure in the late 1930s and eventually got City Hall to designate the house as the official residence of mayors. In 1942, Fiorello H. La Guardia and his family moved in reluctantly, prompted in part by security precautions mandated by the United States’ entry into World War II.

Following the residences of mayors William O’Dwyer and Vincent Impellittieri, Robert F. Wagner Jr. with his wife Susan and their two children Robert III and Duncan arrived in 1954.  After years of sharing their four-bedroom, 4,000 sq. ft. Federal home with its 18th-century acoustics and spatial composition, a constant demand for official gatherings prompted them to establish a path-breaking public private partnership with a mission to enlarge the house with a “public” or “state” wing attached, yet separated inside.

Donations of funds, art, and furnishings with associated provenance were solicited and installed in this seamless 3,000 square feet addition of Federal Revival architecture designed by the septuagenarian classicist, Mott Schmidt.

The wing offers a textbook of the classical Roman tradition with  Corinthian capitals with 18th century-style pineapples as markers of welcome placed within the carved acanthus leaves, columns and pilasters surmounted by an entablature adorned by an architrave, frieze, and cornice coves, all arrayed in golden section proportion and perfect symmetry.

Gracie Mansion Ball room. in this poicture wehave a direct lookin into the light blue painted room. Above the fir place we see a federal stlyer convex mirror with and eagle holding a ball and chain. Under the mirror, framing the firepolace are there feldstar urns. and lastly to the left of the fireplace is the American flag and the the right is the flag of New York City.

Image courtesy of Ryan Lahiff

After securing all necessary approvals and raising funds, work continued as the First Lady was diagnosed with breast cancer in a battle she lost.  Mrs. Wagner never saw her brainchild completed and after the 1966 ribbon cutting by the recently arrived John V. Lindsay, her name was bestowed by the mayor in posthumous memory of a prescient solution that has graced The People’s House ever since: The Susan E. Wagner Wing.

From 1966 to 1977, Mayors John V. Lindsay and Abraham D. Beame resided there with their respective families.

Meanwhile, the original Gracie family landmark itself was suffering years of neglect and the continual erosion of any trace of its origins. To reverse that decline, Mayor Edward I. Koch and founding Chair, Joan K. Davidson, established the Gracie Mansion Conservancy in 1981 as a new public/private partnership. Under its guidance, the first major restoration of the house was undertaken between 1981 and 1984.

Inside the biggest change was a connection cut through a repurposed kitchen, nicknamed “the Hyphen” and providing an accessible bridge between the original Gracie house and the Wagner Wing:  The 18th and the 20th centuries. This meant that instead of distinct residential and official zones, there was a multi-purpose hybrid created in its place varying throughout the day.

In the hyphen looking out towards the ballroom, we see a federal wooden cookie board hanging on the wall of the hyphen. looking into the ballroom , we see a the american flag, three feldspar urns, the side of a gold gilt federal convex mirror, steinway piano in the back ground.

Image courtesy of Ryan Lahiff

This is the Jackie Kennedy moment—the impulse to recreate with well-informed authenticity and restore a semblance of historic continuity where it had been eroded.

Details like covered wooden floors, decorated walls, faux bois. faux marbre, Zuber wallpaper, and notably a new exterior palette basing the recorded notes of “yellow” paint matched thanks to the canvas, “The Arrival of the British Queen,” representing the era of the Gracie construction and a Federal-era solution we know existed at the time.

Gracie Mansion Foyer: Under the painting " Arrival of the British Queen" is the red Wheaton Family Sofa, two Duncan Phfye attributed side tables stand at the sides of the sofa.

Image courtesy of Ryan Lahiff

Here is an example of the kind of historic preservation we know and celebrate today—not just decoration but informed intervention reviving with what the best surviving evidence brings to bear. It can be called “speculative authentication.”

In 2002, following the administrations of David N. Dinkins and Rudolph Giuliani, the interior and exterior of the “People’s House” were again restored providing increased accessibility to the public and City agencies since the incoming Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg interrupted the tradition of residence by opting to remain in his nearby townhouse and turning Gracie into a historic house museum and special official events venue. 

That temporary tear in the historic residential fabric was mended in 2014, when Mayor de Blasio and First Lady Chirlane McCray moved in from their home in Brooklyn. Once again Gracie became an active, dynamic residence, where history would again be made.

With the pioneering leadership of First Lady of New York City, Chirlane McCray, an ambitious series of five special art exhibits ensued from 2015 right through 2021, despite the 2020 closures imposed by the COVID 19 pandemic protocols.

The First Lady’s innovative mandate was for adding to the historic narrative of the restored rooms in order to extend the diverse history lessons which the Mansion could impart to the general public and visiting students alike.

In order of installation, they were Windows on the City: Looking Out on Gracie’s New York (1799); New York 1942 marking in 2017 the 75th anniversary of La Guardia’s wartime arrival; New Yorkers at Work and Play; She Persists; A Century of Women Artists in New York, 1919-2019, marking centennial passage of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote; and lastly, CATALYST: Art and Social Justice.  This final exhibition featured more than 70 works by New York artists and activists since 1960, celebrating the power of art to spark change and spur progress.

Front cover of the Catalyst: Art &Social Justice Program catalogue. Grachic overlay of the exhibit titl;e on the jeffery Gibson's, The Future is Present.

Image courtesy of Ryan Lahiff

Find their dense, insightful, and inclusive content at graciemansion.org.

This example of inclusive narrative blended with the historic fabric of the mansion itself stands as a model for the future public face of “The People’s House.”

A case in point is a piece commissioned for CATALYST which remains in place as a permanent legacy.  Located on the magnificent front lawn, it consists of a greenhouse and farm garden conceived by the artist and galley pioneer, Linda Goode Bryant, along with Project EATS, Active Citizens Project. It provides of a living urban laboratory for plant-based eating by interpreting the foremost language of plants:  the healthy vocabulary of organic food.

 A greenhouse and farm garden conceived by the artist and galley pioneer, Linda Goode Bryant, along with Project EATS, Active Citizens Project

Image courtesy of Ryan Lahiff

The tour itinerary is now in place for all those visiting whether in person and virtually moves back through this chronology starting in the Wagner Wing Foyer.

Up a short flight of stairs, there are three principal rooms of the Wagner Wing; The Peach Room; the Ballroom; and the Blue Room.

Peach Room: Image courtesy of Ryan Lahiff

Ballroom: Image courtesy of Ryan Lahiff

  

Then time traveling back through “The Hyphen” from the 20th-century Wagner Wing to the original 18th- century landmark, visitors circulate from the Dining Room to the Library; then across the historic Foyer with its stairs rising to the mansion’s private zone; and lastly into the stately Yellow Parlor, where the interior tour ends.

 

Dining Room: Image courtesy of Ryan Lahiff

Library: Image courtesy of Ryan Lahiff

Gracie Foyer: Image courtesy of Ryan Lahiff

Gracie Foyer: Image courtesy of Ryan Lahiff

To learn more about the fine and decorative pieces displayed throughout this interior, please visit the “Permanent Collections” section of the Gracie Mansion website. Find there a beautifully illustrated room by room catalog guide.

And better still, reserve for a free in-person tour in one of the available public slots.

The 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.

Thanks for stopping by and see you soon in person at 88th Street and East End Avenue in Manhattan at the northern tip of Carl Schurz Park.

Welcome to The People’s House!

 

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