A Historical Snapshot from the Gracie Mansion Conservancy as part of the Dutch Culture USA program

The site of Gracie Mansion reveals New York City’s history from its First Nation origins through the colonization by the Dutch and English and the birth of the American republic and continuing today with the ever-shifting and growing city of more than 8 million residents across five boroughs, three of which are visible from here.

Three illustrated essays for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy’s Horn’s Hook Project relate to the period of Dutch commercial and cultural jurisdiction of New Amsterdam from 1624 — 15 years after the voyage of discovery by Henry Hudson sailing for the Dutch West India Company in 1609 — until 1664 with English conquest and the advent of New York.

To best underscore this vivid bond between geography and history found here, one need look only at the surviving Gracie landmark.

Upon entering the foyer from the northeast-facing front door dating from 1809, the visitor encounters a compass design exploding on the floor. It was painted there in 1981, when resident Ed Koch (the City’s 105th mayor), launched the namesake conservancy to speculatively authenticate the interior.

Gracie Mansion foyer.

The experts engaged to create the compass design knew that the slave-empowered white upper class of that Federal era — like the Gracies with their neoclassical taste — always sought to decorate and thus conceal the plain pine planks of the actual floors. Options included mats, carpeting, and trompe l’oiel: in this case, decorative painting disguised as marble tile. In that spirit, the Gracie Mansion compass rose as copied from surviving samples of such solutions in the late 1700s proved an ideal and far from merely decorative solution.

Coming from Europe, the favored waterway into the harbor of New Amsterdam and later New York was from the northeast, flowing along with tides from Long Island Sound through the port of Throgs Neck (or as it was labeled in New Netherland, Vriedelandt, meaning “Land of Peace,” translated from the hopeful Siwanoy First Peoples’ name in place long before). Upon entering this port, an ever-increasing number of tall ships and other boats sailed southwesterly along the East River (in fact a tidal strait), passing in front of the Gracie site through the turbulent crook named Hell Gate (derived from the Dutch version, Hellegat or Heile Gadt). The name fits the roiling reality of such tidal rifts.

Front yard of Gracie Mansion Conservancy overlooks Hellgate.

Envision two crows each flying overhead along straight lines — one going up above the East River between Manhattan and Queens and the other slicing in southwesterly atop the strait’s curly unwinding down from the Sound (between the Bronx and Queens) — their axial intersection hits exactly at the compass point shown on the foyer floor at Gracie Mansion. In this way, the Mansion itself defines precisely not only the parallax view from Gracie’s front porch but more vitally the principal marine link between continents. The visitor is looking at nothing less than the prized intercontinental trade route known by the Dutch, English and revolutionary Americans too, as had the Siwanoy people of the indigenous Wappinger Confederacy they all displaced.

The compass motif aligns with the magnetic cardinal points defined by the poles and in so doing serves as introduction to the historic observations below offered by Steve Jaffe, Nicole Maskiell and Even Pritchard. This powerful sense of place — once understood — anchors their words best of all.

With that in mind, please discover more of this origin story from these three illustrated essays, fusing distinct perspectives on this famous living landmark site. Together they inform The Horn’s Hook Project as a historic snapshot to all visitors digital and in-person alike

Welcome to Gracie Mansion and the many stories it tells about New Amsterdam, New York City, and First Nations Wykagyl before European colonization began.

Posted July 2021: A legacy from the pandemic years 2020 and 2021  about the complex 17-century contact between the people and cultures of three continents: Africa, Europe and what came to be known as North America or, to be precise, New Netherland (Nieuw Nederland in Dutch) in 1624.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director
Gracie Mansion Conservancy




Read More: The Dutch Genesis of the Gracie Mansion Site

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