Stories & Essays Archive

Some of Our favorite Things:
Objects and Events that Inform the People’s House

Observations about the collections and displays at Gracie Mansion from friends, staff, and volunteer experts of the Conservancy who help make its programs possible and accessible.


Elizabeth Wolcott Gracie by John Trumbull

Elizabeth Wolcott Gracie by John Trumbull hangs in the Gracie Foyer during the Catalyst: Art & Social Justice art installation. Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

As though there were a tie and obligation to posterity… We get them, bear them, breed and nurse them. [This is] what posterity has done for us.”

John Trumbull, ca. 1830

This portrait of an elite turn-of-the-19th-century Connecticut native, Elizabeth Wolcott Gracie (1795-1819) by John Trumbull has hung in Gracie Mansion for nearly forty years courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

Eliza came from a prominent family that included leaders in both the Colonial and Federal periods. Her paternal grandfather, Oliver Wolcott, a Colonial Governor of Connecticut, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence as well as the Articles of Confederation. Her father, Oliver Wolcott, Jr. was Alexander Hamilton’s successor as the second Treasurer of the United States and subsequently served as Governor of Connecticut. At the age of eighteen, Elizabeth Wolcott would marry William Gracie, Archibald’s oldest surviving son.

Since very little exists at Gracie that belonged to its original owner, this portrait is a rare and useful artifact for guides when telling the origin story of the house and its inhabitants. Archibald Gracie emigrated from Scotland in 1784, a year after the evacuation of the British from New York at the end of the Revolution. Within a few years, he had established a successful merchant trading company with a fleet of 21 ships. In 1799, like other wealthy New Yorkers, he built a country house along the East River, about nine miles north of City limits.  It was in this house on July 2, 1813 that the wedding of William Gracie and Elizabeth Wolcott took place.

This undated portrait was probably painted from life by the prominent Federal-era artist, John Trumbull (1756-1843) who was a friend of the Wolcott family. The sitter is elegantly dressed and coifed in the fashion of the period reflecting her high social status. Although Trumbull completed many portraits, he is best known as an artist of the early independence era and especially for his historical paintings of the Revolutionary War. His iconic painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence hangs in the rotunda of the United States Capitol.

As a Gracie Mansion docent, I experienced a most amusing incident related to this portrait while leading a tour of high school students.  While gathered under the chandelier at the center of the Yellow Parlor, I had explained the significance of the painting and had ended my description by saying, “Eliza was married in this house and six years later died in this house. And…there are some who believe that she haunts this house.”  Unbeknownst to the class, the Mayor was at home and ensconced in the room directly above us. As if on cue, just as I finished my spooky speculation, the Mayor walked across the floor upstairs causing the crystal chandelier to shake and the crystals to make bell-like sounds as they hit against each other. Most of the class stood absolutely still and stared at me incredulously. But one young man simply raced to the door shouting, “I’m outta here!”

Mina Rieur Weiner
Docent, researcher, and writer for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
April 2020

Tar Beach II by Faith Ringgold

Ringgold Tar Beach 2

Tar Beach II by Faith Ringgold hangs in the Yellow Parlor at Gracie Mansion as part of the She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York. Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

“Anyone can fly. All you need is somewhere to go that you can’t get to any other way. The next thing you know you are flying among the stars.”

Faith Ringgold, Tar Beach, 1990

Faith Ringgold’s story quilt, Tar Beach II (1990), hung in the Yellow Parlor of Gracie Mansion’s original 1799 structure for the exhibition She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York, 1919-2019. That show was on display throughout the public rooms of the residence in 2019, marking the centennial passage of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote.

Ringgold (b. 1930) is a celebrated painter, quilt maker, writer, and teacher. In the late 1970s, reaching back to her great, great grandmother Susie Shannon (who quilted as a slave), the artist returned to a family tradition of sewing and collaborated with her mother on the first such work. Using this medium, she continued to stitch and paint stories on fabric that related to her own experience,  both as an African American girl growing up in Harlem and as an adult.

The central image of Tar Beach II, painted on cotton duck canvas and framed with patches of flowery upholstery fabric, depicts a memory from her 1939 childhood when apartment dwellers climbed to the roof in escape from hot summer nights.  The same image appears on the cover of her award-winning children’s book of the same title, published thirty years ago.

The little girl in the book (who I believe is a stand-in for Ringgold), is named Cassie Louise Lightfoot. Amid drying laundry near a table set with food, four adults play cards while Cassie and her brother lie still on a mattress. (Running around was too risky –after dark especially!)

In the background are the New York skyline and the George Washington Bridge. Ringgold recalls that being on the roof made her feel as if she owned everything in sight, especially the bridge, whose lights sparkled like diamonds. As Cassie flies over the city, briefly leaving behind her home and neighborhood, she seems to me like a metaphor for free choice – going wherever you want, being whoever you want to be, and owning your own future.

Ringgold used the flying metaphor in the naming of her foundation, Anyone Can Fly, devoted to supporting African American artists.

In 1995, she published an autobiography, We Flew Over The Bridge.  While its title evokes the imaginary flight of Cassie Louise Lightfoot, this later book tells Ringgold’s real-life journey from New York’s Sugar Hill neighborhood to a black-tie dinner at the Clinton White House.

When I led groups through She Persists at Gracie, the quilt was a highlight for school groups and adults alike. The children related to the fantasy of soaring above the night lights as adults summoned with smiles the shared memory of tar beach escapes.

Yet for all—me included—the appeal above all were the simple forms, the vivid colors, the representation of families isolated in a private oasis, and Cassie’s dream of flying among the stars across the city below.

In October Ms. Ringgold will celebrate her 90th birthday.

Mina Rieur Weiner
Docent, researcher, and writer for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
April 2020

Untitled (Hood 1) by John Edmonds

Untitled (Hood 1) from the Hoods series by John Edmonds hangs in the Peach Room in the Susan E Wagner Wing of Gracie Mansion as part of CATALYST: Art and Social Justice. Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

“I want to change the way people see and speak.”

John Edmonds, 2016

Brooklyn-based photographer, John Edmonds (b. 1989), received a BFA at the Corcoran School of Arts and Design and his MFA at Yale University. His photograph, Untitled (Hood 1) from the Hoods series, hangs in the Peach Room as part of CATALYST: Art and Social Justice.

The subtitle of the work quotes Edmunds’s belief that art has “the power to spark change and spur progress.” Using different mediums and approaches, the Hoods series represents a call to action. When leading tours, I am sensitive to visitors’ varied responses to the works on view.  For example, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s self- portrait, Stop Telling Women to Smile, requires little explanation as its message of gender-based harassment is clearly expressed. On the other hand, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s candy spill representing the cyclical nature of time requires a lengthy interpretation with meaning not readily apparent. Viewers of Alice Sheppard’s joyful video Revel in your Body recognizes that physical disabilities challenges are overcome. While Raise Up by Hank Willis Thomas confronts many with his devastating visual representations of the continuing vulnerability of African American men.

The response to Edmonds’ photograph has been different. His picture does not make a set statement or provide a uniform response. For me, his stark portrait is one of the most provocative precisely because of such ambiguity, challenging each viewer individually to consider the meaning. Untitled (Hood 1) is one in a series of photos of friends of different ages, genders, and races, each asked to put on hooded sweatshirts so when photographed from behind, Edmonds obscures their actual identities.

When approaching the Edmonds, I ask each group to say what they see. It is clear that the “hoodie” has become such a powerful symbol that a good number immediately assume the photo is of a young black male. When informed how this may not be so, varied reactions arise from personal experiences, prejudices, or recalled news stories like the tragic Trayvon Martin case. It is a welcome moment for some to recognize how the “hoodie” has become a racially-coded symbol of cultural bias.

Edmonds has said, “I hope my work can reflect the reality of this country right now.” Based on my experience as a docent, I can report that it does just that.

Mina Rieur Weiner
Docent, researcher, and writer for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
April 2020

The Hyphen

The Hyphen, the inside pathway connecting the 50-year-old Wagner Wing with the surviving and much older Archibald Gracie house. In this photo, we look through the Hyphen toward the door into the Gracie Foyer. Photo by Ashley Dinzey.

Ever wish you could time travel? Well, there is a place in New York City where you can! No cost besides.

After a short walk from the public entrance, visitors to Gracie Mansion can transport back from today to 220 years ago in just a few short steps.

The Federal-era Gracie Mansion is the official residence of New York City’s mayors and first families, as well as The People’s House. Walk in through the 1966 Susan E. Wagner Wing and cross the Ballroom through a time/space wormhole: actually a short, narrow passageway nicknamed  “The Hyphen.” Designed in 1981 by architect Charles Platt, it was sponsored by what was then the new Gracie Mansion Conservancy under Mayor Edward I. Koch, resident from 1978 to 1989.

This inside pathway connects the 50-year-old Wagner Wing with the surviving and much older Archibald Gracie house: the 20th century with the 18th.

A successful import/export merchant who could afford the best,
Mr. Gracie built the house in 1799 as a summer family retreat about nine miles from the 60,000 or so other New Yorkers densely packed into the southern tip of Manhattan.

There are five rooms upstairs, while downstairs visitors pass through three large formal rooms. The foyer opens to the Mansion’s main entryway overlooking Hellgate: the panoramic conjuncture of the East River, the Harlem River, and Long Island Sound framed by the RFK/Triborough Bridge. The three downstairs rooms include the Library, the Dining Room, and the Yellow Parlor, all filled with fine historic furnishings. Many renowned  people have been guests, from  Washington Irving, Nelson Mandela, Leonard  Bernstein, Menachem Begin, and the King of Greece to Gloria Steinem, Harry Belafonte and  Bernie Sanders — even J-Lo and Alex Rodriguez. They stand among many others.

The Hyphen, the inside pathway connecting the 50-year-old Wagner Wing with the surviving and much older Archibald Gracie house. In this photo, we look through the Hyphen into the Ballroom of the Wagner Wing. Photo by Ashley Dinzey.

Surrounding these rooms is a wrap-around porch overlooking the gardens. Historic events things happened here as continues today. For example. Alexander Hamilton and Mr. Gracie along with the Astors and other elite friends helped create the stock market and a newspaper: the New York Stock Exchange and what is still today’s New York Post! Robert F. Kennedy launched his political career on the front porch stairs in 1964.

When Gracie Mansion can once again offer our free tour program, you too could become part of this vital tradition!

Happy time traveling ahead here at The People’s House.   

Mel Bauer
Docent for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
April 2020

Unbought And Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm

UNBOUGHT AND UNBOSSED, the autobiography of Shirley Chisholm, was displayed in a glass case in the ballroom of the Susan E Wagner Wing during the She Persists exhibit. Courtesy of The New York City Municipal Archives.

Brooklyn native Shirley Anita Chisholm (1924-2005) became the first African American woman to serve in the Congress of the United States in 1968, when she won her race for the House of Representatives seat in New York’s 12th Congressional district.

She held that office for seven successive terms until her retirement from public service in 1983.

In 1972 during her second term, Ms. Chisholm declared her candidacy for President of the United States. Though that election was won by Richard Nixon, re-elected after defeating George McGovern, Ms. Chisholm took her prominent place in American history as the first black woman seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination. She was also the first black woman declared a presidential candidate in either of the two major parties.

UNBOSSED AND UNBOUGHT, a poster for Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 Presidential campaign. Courtesy of Brooklyn College, City University of New York

For me, there were two highlights of 2019’s special exhibit She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York, which marked the centennial passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. One was the first edition of Chisholm’s autobiography UNBOUGHT AND UNBOSSED and the other was a similarly named poster from the ’72 presidential campaign.

This wonderful, glass case in the ballroom of the Susan E. Wagner Wing of Gracie Mansion also included two more autobiographical reflections, a biography of Shirley Chisholm by Susan Brownmiller,  campaign buttons and posters, and a 2013 video work by the artist Mickalene Thomas, entitled Say it Plain.

When women cast their ballots in the upcoming elections, remember those who did so for the first time just one hundred years ago in the fall of 1920.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director, Gracie Mansion Conservancy
Inspired by docent Theresa LaSalle
April 2020

Windows on the City: Looking Out at Gracie's New York, 1799

Did you ever wonder during an historic house tour whether you might have been the one depicted on a gilt-edged portrait over the mantelpiece? I didn’t.

Instead, I think, ”This is all very well, but my place would have been on staff, maybe carrying buckets of coal to feed the fires or sweltering over a pot in the cellar kitchen.” Yet there were never signs of such crucial stewards — those who polished the furniture, fed the paintings’ portly gentlemen or helped the ladies into their gowns. When I first saw the Windows on the City: Looking Out at Gracies New York I said to myself, “Good! It’s about time all these history-makers share the spotlight.” And not only those who maintained the big houses, but all New Yorkers making the city thrive.

Stitch, Stitch, Stitch by Karl Mueller. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

The work most accurately echoing these sentiments was Stitch, Stitch, Stitch, a sculpture by Karl Mueller depicting a dejected young woman — shirt draped over her lap — with her “eyes are heavy and dim.” Mueller quoted form to a protest poem, The Song of a Shirt, by Thomas Hood. Hood was a contemporary Englishman, remonstrating the meager pay, abysmal conditions, and long hard days of the working poor.

Sundial by Christopher Colles. Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

One touring Irishman got very excited when he saw a tenderly-forged cooper sundial made by an inventive immigrant from Ireland named Christopher Colles. With prior historic familiarity, he regaled the group with stories about the many other schemes Colles envisioned. One causing special smiles was an enormous wooden flume from Lake Erie to New York; effectively, Colles was predicting the Erie Canal a generation before it was built!

The Baker Cart, from the series Cries of New York, by Nicolino Calyo. Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

A wonderful series of watercolors entitled, Cries of New York, by Neapolitan immigrant, Nicolino Calyo, showed diverse street hawkers selling food or services. Featured were products of all kinds — even ice blocks in summer as preserved in sawdust!  Transport in a little cart was offered in one picture, while in another a knife grinder plied his trade. A nearby video of the merchants’ cries performed by acting students from Brooklyn College evoked the era’s busy, chaotic streets as depicted in the Calyo’s series. Many of the older visitors to Gracie found these scenes reminiscent of their own childhood neighborhoods.

Tontine Coffee House (Wall Street) by Francis Guy. Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

An oil painting by Francis Guy showed the Tontine Coffee House (Wall Street), the forerunner of the New York Stock exchange. Here wealthy men, (among them Archibald Gracie), conducted financial trades. The masts in the background belonged to ships of trade, including until 1762 the business of transporting African men, women and children to be sold as slaves. Close to this exact quay had been the second largest slave market in America: the “Meal Market,” providing labor for 18th-century New York’s economic growth.

Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. Courtesy of the New York State Archives, a program of the New York State Education Department.

Another shameful reminder on show was the receipt for a 14-year-old black child sold into bondage, evidence of the appalling facts underlying New York’s social contract not yet mitigated by the New York State’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. The two-page original statute lay alongside that receipt. This state law passed in 1799, the same year Gracie built his county retreat along the East River’s cooling shores. The Act emancipated children born to slaves after July 4, 1799, but only when the male child reached the age of 28 and the female child reached the age of 25. Full emancipation came only in 1827. Though sobering, these artifacts relate to the history of Gracie Mansion too, as the Gracie family owned at least three slaves and the house itself was likely built by slaves.

I hope you will visit as soon as we re-open but, in the meantime, the brochure from Windows on the City is on our website. I hope you enjoy it and find artwork that speaks to you.

Mary Reynolds
Docent Guide at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
April 2020

Looking From Outside In: Miguel Luciano

Looking from outside in to see Porto Rican Cotton Picker by Miguel Luciano. Photo by Rhonda Wist.

Porto Rican Cotton Picker by Miguel Luciano in the ballroom of the Susan E. Wagner Wing of Gracie Mansion. Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

During Gracie’s prudent public closure amidst the coronavirus pandemic, GMC docent, Rhonda Wist, noticed through a window that one work was visible from outside. She was taking a daily (of course physically distanced) walk in the neighboring Carl Shurz Park, now bursting with lilacs.

The picture shows what she captured: a sculpture by artist Miguel Luciano ironically called Porto Rican Cotton Pickers. It is named after a vintage Schwinn bike (as arrayed by the artist) that proved to be offensive even fifty years ago when launched. The brand name is combined with a misnomer for “Puerto Rican” at the time often mistakenly applied in federal laws and regulations.

Luciano spoke about the piece and another just beside it: A button festooned and embroidered leather vest called Freedom Rider (Homage to Felícitas Méndez) at the opening of the CATALYST: Art and Social Justice exhibition. He described the hard work of California farmer, Felícitas Méndez, who was s a plaintiff in a landmark 1945 de-segregation victory allowing her Mexican- American son to attend public school This precedent-setting 1945 case known as Mendez v. Westminster preceded Brown v. Board of Education by more than eight years.

The artist further described how the Mendez family relocated from Arizona as cotton and citrus harvesters (as well as café operators) to lease and run their own farm in Westminster, Ca. in 1943. This cropland suddenly became available with the wartime internment of the Japanese American owners: the Munemitus family.

We look forward to showing it in person along with 78 other works that inform CATALYST. Stay tuned!

Paul Gunther
Executive Director, Gracie Mansion Conservancy
Inspired by docent Rhonda Wist
April 2020

Bullseye: The Ballroom's Federal Mirror

The Federal-era bullseye mirror above the mantel in the ballroom of Gracie Mansion. Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

One of my favorite pieces at Gracie Mansion is the round gilt mirror hanging above this historic fireplace. Experts call it a bullseye.

As an introduction to it, I remind visitors of the City’s colonial origins in 1624, when the Dutch arrived: displacing the long-established Algonquin nation, launching trade, settling, and declaring it New Amsterdam. Then I recall that in 1664, Charles I of England gained control, naming it in honor of his brother, the Duke of York (and later King James II). Retelling this background helps prepare them to focus. First I ask what they think the convex mirror was used for? Exemplary answers include: vanity; amplifying candlelight; enlarging the room, and surveying guests from the host’s central point of view. The last three are correct along with one more: symbolism.

At the beginning of the tour, a docent discusses the history and symbolism of the bullseye mirror in the ballroom. Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

The symbol lies in its form. The second question I ask leads to the how. “What kind of bird rests at the top of the mirror’s cylindrical gilt frame?” When children are on hand, they answer first, “It’s an eagle!”

Then I ask, “What’s hanging from the eagle’s beak?” One or two adults usually reply accurately, “his ball and chain.” Others laugh at this plain fact.  Funny or not, most dismiss the idea or aren’t sure what that observation even means.  Some visitors then conclude that if so, it must represent the founders’ reprehensible embrace of slavery. I say no (although in a way it does), and go on to explain that it signifies independence: revolution, victory, and freedom from the burden of foreign domination. The American eagle ensnares its prey and proclaims good riddance to the British crown.

Ah yes, of course! (Even for our UK visitors!) Fuller appreciation results.

There are so many details in these bullseye Federal-era mirrors—ornaments and symbols—that they invite such rich interaction.  Every time I point them out to newcomers, it’s like I’m seeing it for the first time—still in awe, as I was when arriving three years ago for docent training.

As soon as Gracie Mansion can reopen to guests like you, please come see it in person along with a new art installation called CATALYST: Art and Social Justice.

New docent volunteers are welcome too!

Theresa LaSalle 
Docent at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
April 2020


“Favorite” seems the wrong word; “essential” fits better.


This is the case especially in the 2020 context of the unfolding coronavirus pandemic with all its attendant threats of fear, fatal illness, isolation, and impoverishment.

My first encounter with what was then a nascent and mysterious “cancer” breaking out among the gay community (especially along America’s dense coasts), was at a health clinic in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. There forty years ago, a staff member on hand from the Centers for Disease Control asked me to fill out an anonymous questionnaire about any symptoms and recent sexual behavior. The purpose of this early research identified what soon became known as GRID (gay-related immune deficiency), later known as AIDS and, eventually, the survivable HIV.

Then as a random part of an ensuing decade-long National Institutes of Health study, I went early after the breakthrough 1985 diagnostic test to learn my virus infection status. Each member of the test protocol had to go in person to await word of what might be a death sentence. My result was negative yet my life changed forever on that sunny afternoon. I grew wiser and—I hope—more grateful as a result. I was still in my 20s.

SILENCE = DEATH by The Silence=Death Project on the wall of the Yellow Parlor in Gracie Mansion along an original Red Ribbon from the Visual AIDS Artists’ Caucus and AIDS by Kay Rosen . Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

Two years later, this iconic 1987 poster lent enduring identity to the battle against AIDS and the failure of so many to take action in combating it. The newly formed group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), deployed it as a central image in their fervent activist campaign. The artist team used the title phrase and a pink triangle, which during the 1970s had become a gay pride symbol reclaimed from its association with the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany.

They also took formal cues about design and broad posting from the Guerrilla Girls and other artist activists, some of whom are also on view at Gracie as part of CATALYST: Art and Social Justice.

ACT UP called this incessantly deployed strategy as its “inside out” one, with the NIH and then the pharmaceutical companies eventually becoming full partners with key scientists regardless of where their research took place. The great treatment “drug cocktail” pioneer, Dr. David Ho, and the work of amFAR founder, Dr. Mathilde Krim, are two fine examples of their strategy’s success.

This historic advocacy ultimately helped force the government and the scientific community to change the way medical research is conducted—bringing about what today keeps a half-million HIV-positive Americans alive along with millions of others worldwide. Its precedent again demands application today as some responsible leaders understand very well to the benefit of those they serve.

Come see the SILENCE=DEATH poster for yourself when we reopen. An original Red Ribbon from Visual AIDS hangs nearby against the vibrant walls of the Mansion’s Yellow Parlor.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
April 2020

Keith Haring’s Untitled Chicken-Man

Untitled by Keith Haring hangs in the Yellow Parlor of Gracie Mansion for the CATALYST: Art and Social Justice exhibit. Though officially untitled, many of us at Gracie Mansion call this piece Chicken Man. Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

“I am interested in making art to be experienced and explored by as many individuals as possible with as many different individual ideas about the given piece with no final meaning attached. The viewer creates the reality, the meaning, the conception of the piece. I am merely a middleman trying to bring ideas together.” — Keith Haring Journal, 1978

CATALYST: Art and Social Justice is the current installation in the historic Gracie Mansion: “a place where history is made as well as measured. “

Many of the works on paper in the Yellow Parlor relate to the theme of artist activism and elicit varied emotions for each viewer. I, for example, feel a sense of solidarity with the creators of the anti-war posters that protest U.S. involvement in wars from Viet Nam to Iraq, and a sense of shame when viewing works recalling our slow and unsympathetic response to the HIV-AIDS epidemic at its 1980s outset. I am moved by the children who used drawing to express their understanding and fears immediately after the 9/11 attack on New York.  But I have to smile when I stand in front of Keith Haring’s large untitled drawing that dominates the northwest wall. Some call this particular recurring pictogram the “chicken-man.”

Keith Haring’s bold, playful, and energetic work is instantly recognizable. He created a visual language not only as something to enjoy, but as a means of spreading messages about global and social issues. A number of his works include powerful visual statements about safe sex, AIDS awareness, apartheid, climate change, and even the dangers of our increasing addiction to technology.

He began his career as a street artist, carrying his chalk and marker with him everywhere and creating simple cartoonish and surreal drawings outdoors for all to see. Beginning in 1981, he made thousands of drawings on empty black ad spaces on subway platforms. As he worked without permission on public property, he learned how to draw rapidly and with an economy of lines allowing completion before getting caught!

In June 1986, Haring painted Crack is Wack on an abandoned handball court wall at East Harlem Drive and 128th Street in Manhattan.  He showed up one day with ladders and paints and completed the mural in one day. For three decades, the popular mural warning against the use of the addictive narcotic, crack, was exposed to the elements and suffered from decay. Fortunately, it has been restored and returned to its bright colors and important proclamation.

Haring’s greatest contribution in his short prolific career was to promote art for the masses: art that was not limited to museums and galleries. Also in ‘86 he opened the Pop Shop on Manhattan’s Lafayette Street, where he made his work accessible to everyone by selling affordable gift items. It seems ironic that in 2017 Sotheby’s sold a Haring painting for more than $6 million.

The drawing on view to visitors at Gracie Mansion is a prime example of Haring’s art. Here he eschewed the traditional use of canvas and instead used sumi ink on cheap oaktag paper. As noted in the quote above, the work is untitled and each viewer can decide its meaning. One might consider the great chicken-man with the baton radiating power as a hieroglyph of a God adored by his followers. Or perhaps he is an actor performing before an audience, or maybe a politician addressing his supporters. Then again, he might be a cartoon character. Haring’s father back in his native Reading, Pennsylvania was an amateur cartoonist and both men loved Walt Disney’s barnyard characters. Perhaps the dominant figure was inspired by Disney’s “Foghorn Leghorn,” a loud mouthed rooster with a brave exterior and an implied “chicken” interior, prancing across the movie screen.

Haring died from AIDS complications in 1990 at age 31. Dr. David Ho’s breakthrough “drug cocktail” treatment allowing those infected with HIV to continue living appeared six years later.

Mina Rieur Weiner
Docent, Researcher, and Writer at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
April 2020

Sagoyewatha and the Pipe Tomahawk from the Big Tree Treaty of 1797

When the de Blasio family moved into Gracie Mansion in April 2014 (three months after the City’s 109th mayor took his oath on New Year’s Day), they resolved to bring a series of temporary, shifting installations of art and artifacts that would complement the fine and decorative pieces already in place. This was an initiative of addition, not subtraction. The result has been a richer picture of New York’s past and present for all visitors: adult and children alike.

The first installation was called Windows on the City: Looking Out at Gracie’s New York. The inaugurating curatorial theme was the year 1799, when immigrant trader Archibald Gracie built this surviving Federal country retreat along the cooling shores of the East River, nine miles away from his townhouse in what then defined New York City.

The Mayor and First Lady pose with guests at the Open House for Windows on the City: Looking Out at Gracie’s New York. The portrait of Sagoyewatha by artist Robert Walter Weir, 1828, hangs on the wall behind them. Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

One of those pieces was a fine oil portrait of Sagoyewatha (or in English, Red Jacket) by artist Robert Walter Weir (1828), on loan from the New-York Historical Society. In this portrait, we see the refined leader of the Iroquois Confederacy’s Seneca nation wearing a “peace medal” presented to him by George Washington.

The first president gave it to Sagoyewatha in gratitude for his dual tribal roles as both ally to the American radicals in their revolution against colonial English rule and indigenous peoples’ representative in peace negotiations with the new Federal government. Ironically, this silver medallion was engraved with an image of Washington himself. Red Jacket wears it on his chest in every image of him known today.

The Pipe Tomahawk of Sagoyewatha was displayed in a case in the Foyer of Gracie Mansion. Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

Displayed nearby was the Pipe Tomahawk (aka “peace pipe”), that was presented to the dignified Seneca chief at the signing of the Big Tree Treaty of 1797. This offering was made when he sold (under duress), the last remaining Iroquois lands in exchange for America’s first officially recognized native reservation, independent of the encroaching settlers. On loan from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, the fine artifact had been a permanent part of Red Jacket’s wardrobe.

In 1805, Sagoyewatha gave a famous speech before the U.S. Senate entitled “Religion for the White Man and the Red.”  His text eloquently described the full measure of injustice suffered by Native Americans at the hands of those just newly arrived:

Since God has made so great a difference between us in other ways, why may we not conclude that he has given us different religions according to our understanding… You have become a great people, and we have scarcely left to spread our blankets. You have got our country, but are not satisfied: you want to force your religion upon us. We do not wish to destroy your religion or take it from you. We only want to enjoy our own.

This series of changing, story-telling exhibitions at Gracie Mansion continues today with CATALYST: Art and Social Justice. Please reserve your space on one of our free public tours as soon as we can safely reopen. All stand at the ready, including the Mayor and the First Lady. Until then, please take a look at the CATALYST website at

Dyan Cutro
Docent at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
April 2020

Hidden in Plain Sight: Mantels and Their Tales

All of the fireplaces in Gracie Mansion are old. Same goes for those in New York’s historic City Hall nine miles away and astride a colonial-era town green between Broadway and Chambers Street.

Even the fireplaces in Gracie Mansion’s 1966 Susan E. Wagner Wing are old. When its architect, Mott B. Schmidt, began designing this new classical-revival public addition in 1963 (right about when the former Pennsylvania Station toppled to the wrecking ball), he inserted salvaged 18th-century architectural details wherever he could. Municipal warehouses brimmed with such traces of the past as the architecture of the 20th century turned skyward and real estate pressures grew.

Foremost in Schmidt’s design rescue were the three mantelpieces selected for the Wagner Wing, each carved from pine circa 1790. Perhaps the richest narrative associated with any of these firesides greets visitors when first arriving through the blue, Venetian-plastered Wagner Ballroom. This mantel survived from the estate of William Bayard (immortalized by a street name, for those in the know), a friend of Archibald Gracie as well as of their distinguished mutual comrade, Alexander Hamilton.

The legend goes that following his grievous duel with Aaron Burr, the wounded Hamilton was ferried back from Weehawken and placed in front of a fireplace in Bayard’s county house on what is today’s Jane Street in Greenwich Village. There he bid adieu, received last rites (after forgiveness for the sin of dueling), and finally succumbed after an agonizing 31 hours. If true, it means this fireplace, now in Gracie Mansion, offered one founding father his final measure of hearth and home.

Mayor Bill de Blasio holds a press conference in the Blue Room at City Hall in January 2020. The marble frieze is visible over his shoulder. Credit: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office.

However, there is now a different Hamilton-connected mantelpiece in New York City with fresh renown and on daily view: the mantel framing the Mayor as he keeps New Yorkers and lovers of the City current with the coronavirus pandemic response. These messages of cure, containment, and gratitude, especially to all extraordinary public servants and essential workers, unfold in another landmark blue room: The City Hall Blue Room, traditionally the place where press conferences and other public announcements occur.

Carved just below that mantel’s shelf is a marble frieze hidden in plain sight most mornings at 9:30am Eastern Time as a silent, back-ground witness to the Mayor’s update. The good news is that the message conveyed by the symbols in the frieze is one of hope, ever since City Hall’s opening dedication in 1812.

Detail of the carved marble frieze on the mantel in the Blue Room of New York City Hall. Credit: Mayoral Photography Office.

An American eagle, even then symbolizing both revolutionary zeal and the new nation, perches atop a Seal of New York City shield in white, Carrara marble flanked by claw-gripped flags and centering a scene celebrating peace and bounty in the 23-year old republic. At the wingspread’s left are riverbank orchards above the fruits of harvest, while to its right a tall ship informs a foreground of unloaded cargo in barrels and crates. Note that the sculptor included apples in the frieze because they were long abundant in the Hudson Valley, rather than because of the post-1975 financial crisis nickname: the “Big Apple.” Trade combined with domestic yield in the peaceful interlude before the War of 1812 erupted. Yet this conflict — again an American victory — resulted in even stronger bonds of trade and commerce. City Hall’s design duo, Jean-François Mangin and John McComb Jr., worked with lead sculptor Jean LeMaire in conceiving this hopeful symbol, perhaps more applicable today to our shared future rather than present challenges.

The portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, painted in 1805 for City Hall.

The last contextual story that City Hall’s Blue Room tells the viewers of present-day news briefings is found in the label plaque of the gilt frame just over the jutting mantel shelf. It reads Alexander Hamilton, 1755-1804, by John Trumbull and adorns the frame of a magnificent full-length portrait of the great statesman. This painting was rendered after Hamilton’s death for City Hall by the renowned artist in 1805. The links between Gracie Mansion and City Hall extend further as an historic result.

Above all, the mantel’s message reminds all those paying attention of the ongoing debt owed to the heroic men and women throughout the nation and beyond, who keep our medical system working and food supply flowing for all those with the duty to self-isolate together towards a safe, healthy return.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
April 2020

Eleanor Roosevelt by Penelope Jencks

Where after all do universal human rights begin? In small places close to home. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1948


This maquette for the statue of Eleanor Roosevelt by Penelope Jencks was displayed at Gracie Mansion during the New York: 1942 art installation as well as during She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York 1919-2019. Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

A maquette of native New Yorker Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), by Penelope Jencks, sat on the mantel in the Peach Room as part of two installations. The first, which opened in 2017, was New York: 1942, a collection of art, artifacts, and documents that commemorated the 75th anniversary of Gracie Mansion as the official mayoral residence. Fiorello LaGuardia and his family moved there from East Harlem that year due to the emergency of world war.

Eleanor Roosevelt was the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), President of the United States from 1932 until his death in 1945, seventy-five years ago this month. She expanded the role of First Lady by holding press conferences and making public appearances here and abroad while promoting the advancement of civil rights, social justice, and human rights. From 1935 to 1962, six days a week, her syndicated column, “My Day” appeared in over one hundred newspapers including New York’s World-Telegram.

President Roosevelt believed that involvement in the wars raging in Europe since 1939 and Asia since 1937 was inevitable. On May 20 1941, months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he established the Office of Civilian Defense (OCD): a new federal agency to coordinate federal and state activities to protect the country in case of a war emergency. While this particular office was disbanded at the end of the war, it has served as a model for future agencies like the current Department of Homeland Security. FDR appointed LaGuardia (then running for his third term as Mayor), as its first director with Mrs. Roosevelt as the assistant director. They were an odd pairing from the start. LaGuardia emphasized fear and preparedness, calling for air raid drills, shelters, and home defense. In contrast, Mrs. Roosevelt believed that the best defense lay in demonstrating the benefits of democracy; she saw the OCD as an opportunity to promote progressive social legislation. Their partnership was short-lived. The civil defense role soon went instead to James Landis, Dean of the Harvard Law School.

It was appropriate that the maquette remain at Gracie Mansion as part of the next formal installation, She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York 1919-2019, celebrating the passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. With this sculpture, artist Penelope Jencks had sought to embody a strong advocate of participatory democracy. Mrs. Roosevelt wrote in her 1960 book, You Learn by Living, “Politics is the participation of the citizen in his government… Therefore, every single one of us must learn, as early as possible, to understand and accept our duties as a citizen.”

The Eleanor Roosevelt statue by Penelope Jencks stands in Riverside Park near 72nd Street. Photo courtesy of the NYC Parks Department. For more information about this monument from the NYC Parks Department, click here.

Ms. Jencks (b.1936), was chosen from among 400 applicants to create the larger than life-size monument that stands in the two-acre park at the convergence of 72nd Street and Riverside Drive. She studied photographs and also modeled after Mrs. Roosevelt’s great-granddaughter, Phoebe, who shared her forebear’s height and slight slouch. The pose captures Mrs. Roosevelt’s dignity and simple humanity. The quote cited above this essay is engraved on a granite plaque on the sidewalk in front of the sculpture. On October 6, 1996, an admiring First Lady, Hillary Clinton, unveiled the statue of her crusading predecessor and joked about her imaginary conversations with Mrs. Roosevelt. “When I last spoke with Mrs. Roosevelt, she wanted me to tell all of you how pleased she is by this great, great new statue.”

After her husband’s death in 1945, Mrs. Roosevelt returned to New York City. On March 15, 1946, President Truman appointed her United States Representative to the General Assembly of the United Nations, which had been established in 1945 with New York as its headquarters. She held that position until 1953 and was chairperson of the U. N. Commission on Human Rights. The Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948 has inspired numerous treaties and constitutions to incorporate its recommendations that governments take measures to uphold basic human rights for all people. Mrs. Roosevelt regarded her role in drafting and securing adoption of the Declaration as her greatest achievement.

Eleanor Roosevelt signed the guest book of Gracie Mansion on January 1, 1950.

Mina Rieur Weiner
Docent, researcher, and writer for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
April 2020

Going to Work by Perla de Leon

“I wanted to show more the life that was there…for me, it was just resilience.”
—Perla de Leon, “Meet the Artist” video, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2017

While sheltering in place during this difficult time, we often recall New York’s historic resilience– the ability of its residents to emerge stronger after major disasters like the cholera outbreaks of 1832, 1849, and 1866; 1918’s Great Epidemic; the terrorist attack of 9/ll (2001:) or Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012.

Going to Work by Perla de Leon, a photograph from her South Bronx Spirit series from 1979-1980 which is now part of the Gracie Mansion CATALYST: Art and Social Justice installation.

The word “resilience” reminded me of the work of photographer Perla de Leon (b. 1952), and an interview she gave in conjunction with her poignant series South Bronx Spirit 1979-1980, exhibited at the Smithsonian and the Museo del Barrio in 2017. (Click here to watch a video of that interview.) Two of the photos from this traveling show were on view in She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York 1919-2019 at Gracie Mansion, while one of them, Going to Work, still hangs in the entry hall of the current installation, CATALYST: Art and Social Justice.

While still in graduate school, de Leon joined a South Bronx project underwritten by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), working with the cultural organization EN FOCO. Its mission was to bring photography to underserved schools with no other art instruction. When emerging from the subway the first day, she was shocked to find herself in what appeared to be a bombed-out landscape. After her teaching duties, the artist wandered around the benighted area with her camera. Becoming part of her regular workday, she set a pattern of recording and a new standard of cultural inclusion.

My Playground by Perla de Leon, a photograph from her South Bronx Spirit series from 1979-1980 which was part of the Gracie Mansion She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York installation.

Most photographers had focused on the disruption, desolation, and frayed fabric caused by the construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, which severed a once thriving South Bronx from the rest of the borough. Extensive arson fires were a common theme; they resulted in part from the city’s recent bankruptcy-averting austerity budgets and ensuing firehouse closures. To most of the world “the Bronx was burning.”

De Leon opted instead to meet members of the predominantly black and Puerto Rican community who had remained with characteristic strength and ambition. In the Smithsonian interview, she described her devoted pursuit of daily continuity, laughter, and neighborly bonds: all of course informing this same spirit of resilience. In Going to Work, for example, against a backdrop of rubble and partially destroyed buildings, her candid shot captures a well-dressed young woman striding with optimism on her way to work.

When necessary social restrictions are lifted here as soon as prudently possible, all New Yorkers will—like de Leon two generations ago—help shape this same spirit of grit, duty, and optimism.

Mina Rieur Weiner
Volunteer Writer, Researcher, and Docent at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
April 2020

Write Wire Your Congressman Today: The Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act

One of the many scars on the face of American immigrant history is the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Advocating for the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Chinese Press encourages one and all to write to their congressman. Photo courtesy of the Chinese Historical Society of America.

The Act was an overtly racist nationwide law banning Chinese newcomers and naturalization in response to a perceived threat of foreign labor. To cite the Library of Congress, “for the first time, Federal law proscribed entry of an ethnic working group on the premise that it endangered the good order of certain localities.” The Chinese population in the New York of 1942, the same year that Gracie Mansion became the official mayoral residence of New York City, was just one quarter of one percent of the 7.5 million total.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and war ensued, the United States suddenly became an ally of China in shared opposition to a Fascist emperor set on conquest. Combined with an overall international imperative to project an image of inclusive freedom and justice, reform work began in Congress on the Act’s repeal. With passage of the Magnuson Act on December 17, 1943, the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act was achieved. Global warfare catalyzed this rapid change in immigrant diversity.

The press clipping on view at Gracie Mansion during the 75th anniversary exhibit New York 1942 reported the growing outrage leading up to that repeal.

Despite this breakthrough, it was not until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that the arrival of future new citizens from all over the world gathered momentum, just as those already here gained overdue pathways to citizenship.

Today more than 20 percent of New Yorkers boast Asian roots.

In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, the contributions of this expanding community strengthen the core social bonds in force across the five boroughs and beyond: from commerce to health care; scholarship to education; and culture to civic engagement.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
May 2020

WAVES Women: A Salute to the Nurses of New York City and Beyond

In 2020, National Nurses Day on May 6 gains special significance. All Gracie Mansion Conservancy stakeholders join this salute above and beyond our shared 7pm applause, the joyous, daily gratitude heard across the five boroughs.

Mary Louise Chaplin (left) and Doris Cole (right) were painted in their WAVES uniforms by Joseph Chase Cummings in 1942. Courtesy of the Roosevelt House at Hunter College.

Two incomplete yet compelling portraits lent by the Roosevelt House of Hunter College to the Gracie Mansion exhibit New York 1942 served to honor the women trained by the WAVES initiative during World War II. That U.S. Navy acronym stood for “Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services.” The other military branches launched similar emergency recruitment and training at the war’s outset. These emergency programs broke gender and racial barriers thanks to the immediate need for womanpower and the persistence of progressive leaders. The women depicted in our exhibit are Mary Louise Chaplin and Doris Cole, painted by Charles Chase Cummings.

The painting of Doris Cole by Joseph Chase Cummings hung in the Blue Room of the Susan E Wagner Wing of Gracie Mansion during the New York 1942 exhibit. Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

Just one of the essential gaps filled by the WAVES and its allied gateways was the Nurse Corps. By the summer of 1945, there were more than 10,000 active and reserve nurses on duty. The first African American nurse admitted was Phyllis Mae Dailey on March 8, 1945. Others soon followed her trail-blazing example.

In the Pacific theater, dedicated ships brought Navy nurses to the battlefront behind assault fleets and ultimately to the beaches themselves, helping collect and attend to the wounded. These floating care vessels included the USS Solace, USS Relief, USS Bountiful, USS Samaritan, USS Refuge, USS Haven, USS Benevolence, USS Tranquility, USS Consolation, USS Repose, USS Sanctuary, and USS Rescue.

Together, they anticipate the great USS Comfort that sailed into New York harbor on March 30, 2020 as a hospital lifeline at a time of peak admissions for those struck by the coronavirus.

Thank you to all nurses in New York City and beyond! Like all essential workers, your hard work and sacrifice will be recorded in history.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
May 6, 2020

Archibald Gracie’s Spode Dinnerware: Imitation, Admiration, or Appropriation?

The Gracie collection of Imari-style porcelain is on display in the bookcase in the Yellow Parlor of Gracie Mansion. Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

Displayed in the Yellow Parlor’s glass-fronted bookcase, Mr. Gracie’s porcelain dinnerware reflects an era of convoluted cultural exchange between East and West. The boldly decorated plates, sauceboat, vegetable dish, and compote were made by the Staffordshire porcelain manufacturer Spode around the 1810s. Surely Gracie’s dinner guests were impressed by the china’s dazzling blue, red, green and gold asymmetrical designs of exotic flowering plants, zig-zag fencing, and stylized leafy borders.

This close-up photo of the porcelain collection shows the colorful florals of the central and border designs. Photo by CJ Nye.

Today, this style is referred to as “Imari” after the southern Japanese port from which similarly decorated wares were shipped beginning in the 17th century. Early trade as well as territorial invasions facilitated webs of cross-cultural exchange: the earliest Imari wares were made by Korean potters in Japan after designs inspired by porcelain manufactured in southern China. Dutch and Chinese merchants brought Imari wares to Europe, where they were admired, collected, and copied. Leading 18th-century porcelain manufacturers in France, Germany, and England made imitations of Imari designs and its distinctive palette. Spode’s version, a distant cousin to the originals, was likely modeled after European knock-offs.

At the time Gracie entertained with his faux Imari, exotic-looking goods were all the rage among European and American elites as well as middle-class consumers, reflecting an age of cultural imperialism. The taste was contemporary with George IV’s Brighton Pavilion, an orientalist fantasy that fused Asian and Indian styles.

As the city’s oldest cultural institution, The New-York Historical Society is proud to lend it.

Margi Hofer
Vice President and Museum Director
The New-York Historical Society
May 2020

Stop Telling Women to Smile by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Stop Telling Women to Smile by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh hangs in the Hyphen as part of the Gracie Mansion CATALYST: Art and Social Justice Installation. 

Hanging in the Hyphen of Gracie Mansion is Stop Telling Women to Smile by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. This black and white self-portrait—with the words “Stop Telling Women to Smile” superimposed below—looks out as the residents, staff, tour groups, and family guests move between the original 1799 country house and the 1966 Wagner Wing.

I am drawn to this piece because of Ms. Fazlalizadeh’s facial expression and the work’s pointed and blunt message to those who always expect women to smile.

Two of the guests at the opening night reception for CATALYST: Art and Social Justice stand in front of Stop Telling Women to Smile by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. Photo courtesy of Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

The artist sees no justification in telling women how to appear to others just as she makes no effort to change her expression when urging it. Ms. Fazlalizadeh maintains an indifferent expression. Her eyebrows are set low; her eyelids droop and, while her eyes look towards the viewer, she tilts her head away from us. Her lips, while closed, are relaxed.

I understand this expression as one of calm self-esteem and have made it many times in various social settings—waiting for the train, in my house, at previous jobs. Although I find the expression to be harmless, I am often inundated with commands to smile.

At first, I thought nothing of it; I would give a curt smile and move on with my day. Yet as demands became more frequent, I began to resent how others expected me to look and confused as to how I carried myself. I felt like I was constantly assessing myself on a scale of mean to approachable. It was nerve-wracking. As a result, I have adopted the mantra “Stop Telling Women to Smile” to express my own true sense of self.

Plan to come on a tour as soon as we reopen in order to form your own response.

Lydia-Rose Aigbedion
Tours and Website Manager at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
May 2020

The Cup by Elizabeth Colomba

“We need role models like Hagar, who is not a passive recipient of abuse; but makes the choice she can make: to survive.” —Wilma Bailey

A close up image of The Cup by Elizabeth Colomba. Courtesy of the Studio Museum in Harlem; bequest of Peggy Cooper Cafritz (1947–2018), Washington, D.C. collector, educator, and activist.

Ms. Colomba depicts a young black woman standing in front of a representation of Camille Corot’s painting Hagar in the Wilderness. The woman obscures Corot’s image of Hagar, essentially becoming her stand-in.

In the Book of Genesis Hagar is the Egyptian slave of the barren Sarah, who decides to share her with her husband Abraham so that he can have a child. Despite it, when Hagar does become pregnant the jealous Sarah instead treats Hagar so harshly that she flees into the wilderness. There, God tells her to return to Sarah and Abraham or else she risks dying alone in the desert. Having asserted herself initially, Hagar nonetheless returns in order to survive. Ismael was the son she soon delivered to the world and all of Biblical history.

For much of America’s history, enslaved women—like Hagar—had to comply with such demands; survival demanded it.

The Cup by Elizabeth Colomba hangs in the foyer of Gracie Mansion during the CATALYST: Art and Social Justice exhibit.

Today many women of color remain surrogates, taking care of other women’s children or struggling as single mothers. Ms. Colomba has summarized it best, “The Cup is an allegory of the oppression of women and black women adopting the story of Hagar.”

In this beautiful, figurative painting now hanging in Gracie’s old foyer, an empty cup is a “symbol of the womb, waiting to be filled.” The rich yellow and blue of the subject’s dress are colors associated for many as signals of divine salvation.

Plan a visit to see this magnificent work in person as soon as The People’s House reopens to the public.

Mary Reynolds
Docent Guide at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
May 2020

Hi Hee Chinese Theatre, Pell Street, New York City by Stafford Mantle Northcote

Hi Hee Chinese Theatre, Pell Street, New York City by Stafford Mantle Northcote was part of the New Yorkers at Work and Play exhibit at Gracie Mansion. The loan and the photo are courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

This Chinese Theatre, also known as the Chinese Opera House, opened at 5-7 Doyers Street in New York City’s Chinatown in 1883. It was the first Chinese-language theater established east of San Francisco, and it provided the immigrant community with familiar stories from its homeland as well as opportunities to socialize and exchange news.

The theater also attracted tourists intrigued by the elaborate costumes and acrobatics of the performances and the perceived exoticism of Chinatown at large. The artist Stafford Mantle Northcote (1869-1949) captured the lively scene in 1899; the painting was displayed in Gracie Mansion for much of 2018. In it, he references the growth of Chinatown tourism by including a white couple seated in a theater box toward the right. He moreover invites a touristic gaze: just as the opera offers a spectacle for the audience depicted, so the painting as a whole offers a spectacle for Northcote’s viewers. The viewing area becomes part of an extended stage, and the people depicted part of the cultural performance.

His rendering is nevertheless relatively sensitive. Amid an overtly racist and xenophobic visual culture spurred by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and fear of the “Yellow Peril,” Northcote showcases the Chinese arts, individualizes the Chinese faces, depicts the immigrants in a mixture of Chinese and western dress, and acknowledges the complexities of cross-cultural encounter. Notice that the theater box and railing keep the white couple and viewer, respectively, at bay—and that a man on the left faces the picture plane to return the touristic gaze of the viewer.

Wendy Ikemoto
Curator of American Art
The New-York Historical Society
May 2020

9/11 Through Young Eyes

Muslims were dehumanized, 2001

These four construction-paper collages are from a series of 31 artworks conceived by eighth-grade students* at The Calhoun School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and the repercussions they set in motion. This convulsive event coincided with the first day of school for these thirteen-year olds. In a span of 102 minutes, the world they would inherit changed irrevocably if unknowably.

Firehouses were in mourning. Entire companies had perished, 2001

The mass death toll at the World Trade Center haunted the cityscape in myriad forms including candlelight vigils, urgently photocopied Missing Person fliers, sidewalk shrines spreading outside local firehouses and police stations, and the disfigured skyline of lower Manhattan. At every turn, these middle schoolers confronted evidence of public grief, shock, and anxiety; of surging patriotism and reactive compassion; of conflicting calls for score-settling on behalf of nearly three-thousand innocent victims. Guided by two Calhoun teachers, the students were encouraged to take stock of this unfolding aftermath. The result was a collective art project eventually titled “9/11: Through Young Eyes.”

And people still miss the Twin Towers, 2001

Informing this undertaking was a class field trip to the Whitney Museum of American Art that same fall, to see an exhibition of Jacob Lawrence’s sweeping, 60-panel Migration Series (1940-41). While removed in time and topic from the 2001 crisis, Lawrence’s investigation of the painful causes and complex effects of the widespread exodus of African Americans from the agricultural South to the industrial North intrigued Calhoun’s students. Anticipating that 9/11 might be recognized as their own generation’s defining event, the project participants adapted Lawrence’s bold, modernist colors and reductive pictorial designs to create their own epic narrative about the terror attacks on the United States and their consequences, some of which deeply disturbed these thoughtful eighth graders. Like Lawrence, they coupled their collage constructions with succinct prose captions.

Missing signs were posted everywhere, 2001

In autumn 2011, a retrospective exhibition of “9/11 Through Young Eyes” was installed at the prestigious D.C. Moore Gallery to mark the ten-year anniversary of the attacks. The 31 featured artworks were subsequently transferred to the nascent collection of the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Today, the Calhoun School collages are a treasured component of the Museum’s holdings of artwork and writings by young people who witnessed 9/11 and its fall-out. In these contemporaneous explorations by the Calhoun students, one senses their struggle to make meaning of a national tragedy that was shifting the world’s geopolitics and the fragile balance between civil liberties and homeland security. The attacks also put to test their own emerging humanitarian values and aspirations for social justice.

Jan Seidler Ramirez
Chief Curator & Executive Vice President of Collections
National September 11 Memorial & Museum

*The Calhoun School’s Class of 2006 artists were: Benjamin Abrams, Weslee Berke, Angela Bonilla, Justin Brooke, Harper Buonanno, Clio Calman, James Dawson, Michael Feher, Erik Font, Theo Goodman, Sophie Harris, Jonathan Jimenez, David Katz, Rachel Klepner, Eva Loomis, Emily McDonald, Madeleine McMillan, Ramon “PJ” Padilla, Joshua Pozzuto, Rory Sasson, Samara Savino, Katherine Schreiber, Andrew Schwartz, Sophie Silverberg, Rachel Spitz-Lieberman, Raymond Weiss, Rachel Wiedermann, Blake Zaretsky, David Zhou, Michael

Thoughts on Collage Panels from the ensemble project “9/11 Through Young Eyes”

Courtesy 9/11 Memorial & Museum, Gift of The Calhoun School, New York City

“Muslims were dehumanized,” created by eighth-grade students at the Calhoun School in 2001

During this period of Pause triggered by the unnerving Covid-19 virus, I have been thinking in particular about Millennials. As a demographic cohort, many transitioned into adolescence and young adulthood with the 2001 terror attacks as a defining event that would influence their lives, inescapably, from that moment forward. Today, they are building careers, raising families of their own, exerting their vote and voices, and pressuring peers, parents, employers and elected officials to create a more equitable, safer, healthier society. Less than twenty years after 9/11 altered our geo-politics and tenets of “homeland” security, they – like all of us — are confronting another unfathomable challenge in the form of a global health pandemic.

“Firehouses were in mourning. Entire companies had perished,” created by eighth-grade students at the Calhoun School in 2001

Each of these seismic crises seemed quite unimaginable until they happened. Both have threatened human optimism. Thinking about the collaborative art project produced in response to the 9/11 attacks by 8th graders at the Calhoun School, four now installed in the gracious parlor of Gracie Mansion, I am wondering how those Class of 2006 students are weathering this latest sea-change. Are they using take-away memories from 2001 to help frame their understanding of today’s predicament? From classrooms at home, are they introducing their own children to the same, but virtually-presented, exhibition of Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series that inspired their own stunning collages from 2001, perhaps hinging them to discussions about the nature of prolonged, hard-fought perseverance?

“Missing signs were posted everywhere,” created by eighth-grade students at the Calhoun School in 2001

Would the creator of “Firehouses were in mourning” be comparing the courage and sacrifice of 9/11’s first responders to the bravery, dedication and risks undertaken by those on the frontlines in New York’s combat with this deadly contagion? Are they encouraging their families to clap for and express gratitude to these contemporaneous Essential Heroes, many of whom wear face masks, hospital garb, bike helmets and restaurant aprons instead of bunker coats and hard hats? Would the artist of “Missing signs were posted everywhere” explain, frankly, the outcome of that desperate hope? Would he or she address the far-greater number of victims now claimed by Covid-19 – a count likely to magnify if we don’t unite in practicing spiritually painful but critically-required social distancing? Would the composer of the bold “Muslims were dehumanized” collage use it as a portal now into the irresponsibility of scapegoating an innocent population group on the basis of wrong-headed facts or where an illness was first reported?

Regrettably, I know nothing about the Calhoun Class of 2006 today. I am nonetheless confident that they are engaging in these difficult, important conversations connected to their youthful 9/11 experiences. Millennials are categorized as positive, open-minded, resourceful and justice-seeking. They fuel my belief in resilience, which sustained us through the dark years ignited by 9/11 and will do so again, as we shift into a new historical era launched by the novel Covid-19 virus.

Jan Seidler Ramirez
Chief Curator & Executive Vice President of Collections
National September 11 Memorial & Museum

Drawings from Ground Zero by John Coburn

Awaiting Our Brother’s Return by John Coburn, 2001

After watching television news coverage of the September 11, 2001 attacks at home in Toronto, artist John Coburn felt compelled to witness the devastation firsthand and to see whether his artwork might be of some emotional support to the recovery effort. He arrived in the U.S. in late fall 2001 and made his way to Ground Zero, carrying a copy of a drawing he had made of the Twin Towers and the lower Manhattan skyline years earlier. The drawing warmed the hearts of personnel at the perimeter of the World Trade Center site and aided Coburn in bypassing various barricades. Using pen and ink, he sketched the valor, generosity, and warmth that he witnessed on the streets of lower Manhattan in the fall and winter following the attacks. Of special note are drawings of the wrought iron fence ringing St. Paul’s Chapel and its graveyard, as well as those of people paying their respects and leaving tributes at the fence and around Ground Zero. Coburn became friendly with many recovery workers and volunteers at the Chapel during that time.

Note the detail of the wrought iron fence ringing St. Paul’s Chapel and its graveyard in John Coburn’s 2001 drawing “St. Paul’s Chapel.”

Coburn eventually returned to Canada and resumed his life and work there. Working with partners, he published his drawings along with inspirational quotations in the form of a book titled Healing Hearts. His goal was to present a copy to the families of the nearly 3,000 people killed on September 11, 2001. The Museum later acquired a copy of the book. Several years later, a fire ravaged Coburn’s home, destroying many of his belongings. However, the drawings he had made in New York in 2001 and 2002 survived. Many are damaged or burned at the edges but the subject matter of each remains clear. Of their strange survival, Coburn has said, “Hope is unextinguishable.”

Prior to becoming damaged, the drawings were exhibited on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the attacks. In their post-fire state, the ensemble was exhibited at the Canadian Consulate in New York City on the 15th anniversary prior to their donation to the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Two of Mr. Coburn’s drawings now hang in the Yellow Parlor at Gracie Mansion as part of the CATALYST: Art and Social Justice exhibit.

Jan Seidler Ramirez
Chief Curator & Executive Vice President of Collections
National September 11 Memorial & Museum

Pierre, Juliette, And Euphemia Toussaint

In 2016 when Gracie tour visitors arrived in front of the three watercolor portraits of the Toussaint family (ca. 1825 and on loan from the New-York Historical Society), many assumed I would discuss the Haitian independence leader Toussaint L’Ouverture.

A miniature of Pierre Toussaint, founder of the Catholic Charities, was part of the exhibit Windows on the City: Looking Out at Gracie’s New York. Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

Not so! The pictures instead depict Pierre Toussaint, his wife Juliet, and their daughter Euphemia. It is commonly believed that the link in names resulted from Haitian-born Pierre’s selection of this surname as a way of honoring his national liberator from French colonization in 1804.

Sometimes I asked the visitors if they had ever heard of Pierre. It turned out rarely to be the case but they grew fascinated to learn more.

So just why are New Yorkers fortunate to have had Pierre as a fellow New Yorker?

He was born into slavery in Haiti in 1766 and served as a domestic servant to his holder, Jacques Berard, who had Pierre baptized and educated by the family tutor. Nearly four decades later Berard brought Pierre and his sister Rosalie to New York as a respite from the chaos of the Haitian revolt.

Once here, Berard encouraged Pierre to train as a hair stylist. As a result, he soon became one of New York’s most sought after hairdressers for a wealthy, fashionable elite. The women in those days had mountains of hair so his success was quite a feat; it is said that he used to surprise them by inserting flowers in their coiffure.

The portrait of Juliet Noel (Mrs. Pierre) Toussaint was loaned to Gracie Mansion by the New-York Historical Society.

Unusually for the era, Mr. Toussaint was allowed to keep most of his earnings and he saved up prudently. When his owner passed away, Pierre had the means to take care of his master’s widow, Marie, and to settle many debts. Pierre had become wealthy.

Widow Marie Berard made sure upon her death to grant the Toussaints’ manumission and Pierre was freed from bondage at the age of 40. He soon purchased and married fellow Haitian American Juliette Toussaint.

They bought a house in 1811 and adopted his sister’s daughter, Euphemia, after Rosalie died. She soon succumbed to tuberculosis at age 14 and Pierre and Juliette were left devastated.

The Toussaints were ardent Roman Catholics at a time when there was much prejudice against that faith. In the wake of Euphemia’s loss, they opened their home as the first Catholic orphanage for black children. They also helped with their young lodgers’ education and job placement. Pierre even visited victims of cholera, when waves of the lethal disease descended on the city.

Euphemia Toussaint, adopted daughter of Pierre and Juliet Toussaint, was painted in watercolor by an unknown artist. Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society.

Toussaint also helped finance construction of the first St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street. Many Gracie visitors were surprised to learn about this earlier version of the church — and even more so at the fact that the landmark still stands today.

In addition, he went to Mass every day for more than 60 years, organized the first Catholic order for black nuns, and even started the philanthropy Catholic Charities.

New York’s Terence Cardinal Cooke started a movement to canonize Toussaint in 1968. Eighteen years later in 1996, Pope John Paul referred to him as the “Venerable Pierre Toussaint,” in and of itself part of the ongoing process. Some already celebrate “Our Saint Pierre” Feast Day on June 30th. In 1990, Toussaint’s remains were moved to the crypt in the current St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. He is the only layperson to have his remains placed amongst those of cardinals and archbishops. Soon his beatification will be complete and New York will have its first Saint Pierre.

Gracie is a place of delight and discovery. Find out for yourself when we reopen.

Theresa LaSalle
Docent Guide at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
May 2020

Chinese Porcelain Platter and Flower Vase:New York and the China Trade

She now her eager course explores.
And soon shall greet Chinese shores.
From thence their fragrant teas to bring
Without the lead of Britain’s king;
And Porcelain ware, encased in gold;
The product of that finer mold.

—Phillip Freneau, 1790, excerpted from a poem dedicated to the inaugural journey of the Empress of China

This urn-shaped vase is one of a pair of Chinese export porcelain urns decorated with the coat-of-arms of the United States, blue and gold swags, and other patriotic motifs. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

As the United States celebrated the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 1,1783, ending the War of Independence and embarking as an officially recognized nation, it faced extreme debt and financial hardship caused by this radical anti-colonial revolution. There were few options for international commerce as European nations established barriers, while Great Britain cut off access to trade with the Caribbean Islands.

Colonial America had not been allowed to trade with China on its own in the pre-war period and so had to rely on the British East India Company for tea, porcelain, silk, nankeen (a strong cotton cloth woven in China,) and other desirable items subject to high import taxes. At last with independence, entry to the global economy promised great riches; Americans wanted to establish direct contact with China as soon as possible.

On February 22, 1784, six months after signing the Paris treaty, a ship named the Empress of China sailed from New York Harbor destined for Canton (Guangzhou), China. Robert Morris of Philadelphia, known as the “financier of the revolution,” headed a group of backers of the voyage. They believed that larger economic connections would develop at a number of stops in the “East Indies” along the way. The Empress of China was thus the first American ship to begin this trade linkage to China and, in turn, all of Asia. Its cargo included lead, cordage, furs (mainly beaver), 12 casks of spirits, silver, raw cotton, and 30 tons of North American ginseng. Ginseng root, known for its stimulant and therapeutic properties, had been revered in China for 5,000 years.

Serving as a kind of economic declaration of independence, the Empress of China set off with great fanfare including a 13-gun salute—one shot representing each state in the newly formed union. When the ship returned to New York on May 11, 1785, its 800 chests of tea, silks, nankeen trousers, and 64 tons of porcelain import ware (doubling as ballast), were a sensation in stores up and down the coast of the new nation.

Soon dozens of ships were traveling between the United States and China, resulting in the earning of large fortunes in New York and New England and funneling much needed custom duties into the national treasury. From the inaugural sailing of the Empress of China to the late 1830s, trade with Asia became an important priority and Chinese products were woven into the fabric of American life.

Thanks to a 2015 loan from the Museum of the City of New York, two magnificent examples of this essential trade were on display at the Gracie Mansion through the following year as part of Windows on the City, Looking Out at Gracie’s New York. As the first of five special exhibits since 2014 adding to the core landmark narrative, Windows took its curatorial cue from 1799, the year Archibald Gracie built his country retreat along the cooling shores of the East River.

A porcelain platter, ca. 1790–1810, decorated with the New York State coat-of-arms by Chinese artists who adapted it from ship documents and coins brought over on American China-trade ships. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

It is likely no coincidence that Scottish merchant Gracie emigrated here in 1784, the same year as the historic launching of the Empress of China. He had learned about the global economy and the shipping trade while working in Liverpool, England. Anticipating the economic opportunities possible after the Revolutionary War, he sailed to New York with a cargo of dry goods, earthenware, iron pots and other items. Upon arrival and with two partners, he opened a business, “Archibald Gracie & Co.” at 224 Queen Street (now Pearl Street).

In 1793 the firm became “Archibald Gracie & Son, East India Merchants” at 25 Whitehall. Soon, its red and white private signal flag was flying over a fleet of 21 cargo ships exporting and importing with Europe and later the lucrative new routes across the Pacific.

Once New York opened such direct trade, most of the porcelain imported was specially made for the American market—in some cases by direct commission. The American eagle, municipal coat of arms, and other patriotic symbols were adapted by expert Chinese artists from ship-born documents and imported coins.

New York’s port grew rapidly with the 1838 advent of ocean-going steamships and the opening in 1825 of the Erie Canal. By 1840, more passengers and tonnage came through the city’s harbor than all others in the young nation combined.

It is especially fitting during Asian Pacific Heritage Month to recall the origins of this economic and cultural lifeblood.

Mina Rieur Wiener
Researcher, Writer, and Docent Guide at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
May 2020

A Statuette of Fiorello LaGuardia

In this close up view of the statuette of Fiorello LaGuardia, you can easily see the mayor’s favorite Stetson hat. Photo courtesy of Mike Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

Of all the many artworks depicting the City’s 99th mayor Fiorello LaGuardia on display in the special anniversary exhibition, New York 1942, this statuette stood out as a favorite. Thanks to a loan from The Queens Museum, it held a place of pride in the Wagner ballroom throughout 2017. “The Little Flower,” (LaGuardia’s nickname as translated from Italian), was made with evident fondness by an anonymous artist using just paper, glue, and ink.

New York 1942 marked the 75th anniversary of Gracie Mansion as New York’s official mayoral residence. 1942 was the year when—at the threshold of his third and final term—LaGuardia, his wife Marie Fisher, and their two children, Eric and Jean, moved in. The catalyst for their heretofore-reluctant arrival was the global war against fascism. Gracie Mansion served as both safe haven and headquarters as this emergency role befell the Mayor.

What is less known about the beloved inaugural mayor is his fulcrum role in launching systems for homeland civil defense at the behest of President Franklin Roosevelt.

Thanks to a loan from The Queens Museum, this statuette of Fiorello LaGuardia held a place of pride in the Wagner ballroom throughout 2017. Photo courtesy of Mike Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

On May 20, 1941, a year before his example-setting relocation to Gracie Mansion, LaGuardia had become the first head of a newly created agency called Office of Civil Defense, initially in partnership with America’s First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. That was the date on which FDR created (by executive order), this urgent new federal office and named New York’s tenacious, virulently anti-fascist chief executive as its director. LaGuardia served as a volunteer despite its status as a full cabinet post until its further professionalization in February 1942. In others words, LaGuardia began wearing a hat far bigger than his usual height-extending Stetson as both dynamic leader of America’s largest city and innovative public servant to a nation hurtling towards war.

What now is called homeland security was at its founding the kind of progressive government-driven mobilization so feared and vilified by more isolationist, populist forces, who saw it as a subterfuge for lethal, expensive entanglement abroad. “America First” served as its slogan as it still does for some today.

LaGuardia’s job was no less than spawning alarm as a pathway to defense and in turn military preparedness. The Boston Evening American reported LaGuardia as conveying that “in contrast to the singing, sweater knitting and basket weaving of homeroom Americans in World War I,” air raid defense, disciplined action, and a military mindset were the most apt response to the threats of homeland attacks in this second world cataclysm of the 20th- century. There can been no freedom without security—they grew inseparable.

To learn more about this era, download the New York 1942 exhibit brochure under Past Exhibits. Also, be sure to read the essay about Marie Fisher LaGuardia under First Ladies of Gracie Mansion in the HISTORY menu of our website. They essay was written by her granddaughter, Dr. Kate LaGuardia, who lives nearby. Her father, Eric, is still thriving today in Seattle, Washington.

Today’s collective fight to control and conquer the coronavirus pandemic recalls the origin story of The People’s House, or Little White House as wartime leaders often called it.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
May 2020

Contoured Playground, A Proposal for the Poston War Relocation Center by Isamu Noguchi

This bronze model of Isamu Noguchi’s Contoured Playground design was on display during the New York 1942 exhibit at Gracie Mansion. Photo © The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, NY / Artists Rights Society (ARS).

One of the most painful chapters of the diverse Asian American narrative is Executive Order 9066 during World War II. With his 1942 signature, President Roosevelt designated “military areas” from which Japanese Americans could be excluded. All such residents living in the three Pacific coast states were thus forced into internment camps until 1945. With the stroke of a pen, the most basic civil and human rights were arbitrarily denied these fellow citizens due merely to ethnicity.

As this racist order did not apply to Asian Americans on the East Coast, the young, already celebrated, New York artist, Isamu Noguchi volunteered to move to the largest internment camp, Poston in Yuma County, Arizona. His ultimately naïve intent was to design and create amenities for enhancing the lives of those stripped of their homes and livelihoods.

Noguchi’s Contoured Playground model was shown in a glass case in the foyer of Gracie Mansion during the New York 1942 exhibit. Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

This bronze model of an unbuilt playground was on display at Gracie Mansion during its 2017 anniversary exhibition New York 1942. Lent by Astoria’s beautiful Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, the model not only provides a glimpse of this compassionate act, but also endures to the present day as an inspiration for landscape and structural architects as well as earth work artists like James Terrell, whose Roden Crater was recently completed in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Noguchi’s playground model is a masterpiece of 20th century American art born of tragedy.

Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
May (Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month) 2020

The Kim Loo Sisters by Leslie Li

A film still from the video of The Kim Loo Sisters by Leslie Li. © 2020 Kim Loo Sisters.

A video excerpt shown in Gracie’s historic Library during the special 2017 anniversary exhibit New York 1942 explored the lives of four ethnic Chinese sisters, whose jazz vocal quartet was the first Asian American act ever featured on the Broadway stage. This tender look back at the talented and resolute Kim Loo sisters captivated visitors throughout the year of viewing.

Devoted niece, Leslie Li, edited together live interviews with historic footage to tell a story of both triumph and persisting oppression.

To paraphrase renowned historian Dr. Ken Jackson from his epic 1995 The Encyclopedia of New York, “During the Second World War many Chinese joined the American armed forces… They formed a number of organizations in the city, among them the Chinese Seamen’s Union and the National Maritime Union. A labor shortage allowed many Chinese to find work in war-related industries, and in 1943 the Chinese Exclusion acts were repealed.”

The Kim Loo sisters help illustrate this cultural sea change. One scene even shows them singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at a segregated club of enlisted, uniformed Asian Americans fighting for the defiant nation they called home.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
May (Asian American and Pacific Heritage Month) 2020

Gracie’s British Cannonball from the Revolutionary War

A close-up of the British cannonball on the mantel of the Yellow Parlor in Gracie Mansion. Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

Of all the many histories tied to New York City—from its Algonquin roots to the present-day Pause against global pandemic—the role of the military often gets short shrift. Memorial Day 2020 lends a chance to correct the record and salute the women and men who have died in the cause of American freedom.

For example, nearly 80 percent of the soldiers and material bringing victory over the Nazis 75 years ago embarked from the Brooklyn docks of New York Harbor. The city was the gateway of liberty over genocidal tyranny: The true arsenal of democracy.

And this vital role in war didn’t start in the last century. When most think of the American Revolution, Boston and Philadelphia come first to mind as primary historic sites. Yet fully one third of the War’s battles were waged in the New York colony.

Perhaps one reason why this bloody local strife is so forgotten today was its relatively early advent in the nascent revolt.

Mayor Bill de Blasio in conversation with Gracie Mansion guests at the opening of the Windows on the City: Looking Out at Gracie’s New York exhibit in 2016. The cannonball sits on the mantel in the Yellow Parlor nearby. Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

Five major engagements took place in New York City beginning on August 27, 1776 with Great Britain’s brutal victory in the Battle of Long Island aka Brooklyn, which unfolded on terrain marked today at the crossroads of six neighborhoods in the duly fabled Green-Wood Cemetery. General George Washington’s nighttime retreat to Manhattan across a foggy East River led soon to the capture of the British-loyalist Walton estate then located on the strategic Hellgate site of what later became Archibald Gracie’s post-war, riverside county retreat. The radical forces turned the seized county estate into a strategic battery against the guns of both the peerless British Navy and its fellow Long Island field battalions.

The Manhattan retreat proved Pyrrhic, however, as just nine embattled weeks later—while under ruinous British bombardment from land and sea—Washington and his troops fled across the Hudson on October 16 to New Jersey and later upstate New York on the slow road to full independence seven years later in 1783.

The cannonball on the mantel, surrounded by other decorative items, in the Yellow Parlor of Gracie Mansion. Photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

The cannonball that holds pride of place on the mantel of Gracie’s Yellow Parlor was one of those found during an archeological dig undertaken in the early 1980s, when resident Mayor Koch created the Conservancy partnership. Its target had been Washington’s captured Walton redoubt. The British bombardment had clearly hit its target.

This deceptively heavy cast iron ball serves as silent tribute to the American Revolution, the 6,800 fighters who gave their lives to free a new nation, and the millions who have made this ultimate sacrifice ever since, just as so many essential workers have done to date in the present fight against COVID-19.

The Conservancy remembers them all on behalf of grateful New Yorkers.

Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
Memorial Day , May 24, 2020

Vortex to Hover by Kaveri Raina

Vortex to Hover by Kaveri Raina was part of She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York. The painting was on display in the Yellow Parlor of Gracie Mansion.

The Conservancy bids farewell to 2020’s Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month: paused in live gatherings but not in pride and spirit. It does so with a shout-out to artist Kaveri Raina, whose work was a prominent part of She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York (1919-2019), an art installation marking the centennial of women’s suffrage.

Born in New Delhi, India and raised in Columbus, Ohio before moving to New York City to teach and create art, Ms. Raina describes her driving intent:

My artistic practice began as a reaction to an alien environment. I was born in New Delhi, but was brought to the States for a better future. The essence of my work lies in my need to resolve the often- conflicting aspects of my hybrid identity. The way in which I navigate the social, cultural, and spiritual spheres of my life rely deeply on the need to both assert myself as an individual and as part of a community.

I use vibrant colors, decorative patterns, and designs reflected in Bandez (block printing) saris… Repetition signifies the process of my mark making, like focusing on the meaning or sound of a mantra, rather than counting its repetitions. The combination of architectural forms and organic lines create a metaphoric, tectonic view. In conceptualizing my work I have been influenced by artists and writers like Reena Banerjee, Jessica Stockholder and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

I use variety of textiles such as cotton, Khadi, muslin, and linen. These fabrics are commonly worn by marginalized sections of society in India. The rough texture of these materials denotes the ruggedness of the common man and is akin to the surface of my paintings… My artistic explorations exist between two and three dimensions, and it deconstructs abstraction by uncovering layers of uncertainty, may it be personal, compositional, or material.

The year coming promises renewed attention.

Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
May (Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month) 2020

Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy at Gracie Mansion: In Memoriam

Robert F Wagner was the mayor of New York City from 1954-1965.

Fifty-two years ago on June 6, 1978, New York State senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Fewer than five years after the murder of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, he had just celebrated his victory in California’s Democratic presidential primary.

“RFK” was his affectionate moniker.

The brisk trajectory of his 40-month career as an elected official began on the front steps of Gracie Mansion where, on August 24, 1964, RFK stood alongside then Mayor Robert F. Wagner to announce his candidacy for New York State senator. He would go on to beat Republican incumbent Kenneth Keating in the November 3 general election. Mayor Wagner was a staunch ally, whose progressive, reforming values the Kennedy family had long shared.

RFK’s campaign launched just nine months after his brother’s assassination and three days before delivering a eulogy to the late president at the Atlantic City nominating convention of the National Democratic Party. In his Gracie Mansion declaration, Kennedy also signaled his intent to resign his post as Attorney General in the cabinet of President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose own national candidacy ended in shared November 1964 victory.

Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy speaking to a crowd in 1963.

As the nation marks the anniversary of his tragic death, the words he declared at Gracie that day merit recollection:

I agree with Mayor Wagner…that all of us working together to bring youth, vitality, and dedication to the Democratic Party, can be extremely important to all people of this state. I will give the full measure of my energies to that task.

Overlooking the magnificent Gracie Mansion panorama of Hellgate and the Triborough Bridge, which forty years later would see his name added as both memorial and enduring civic example, Robert F. Kennedy set a course that, despite its tragic end, still inspires Americans and their friends around the globe in their work for greater justice and opportunity for all.

Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
June 2020

If the Walls Could Talk: Guests of Renown at Gracie Mansion

Visitors to Gracie Mansion delight in knowing that they are walking in the same rooms as have many prominent national and international figures. The list of such notable leaders and celebrities is far too long for this short essay, but as a docent, I usually share an example or two.

Archibald Gracie enjoyed entertaining many important civic leaders and literary figures in his country house. Alexander Hamilton, whose resume includes Attaché to General George Washington, leading author of the Federalist Papers, and the first Secretary of the Treasury, was a friend of Gracie’s. In the fall of 1801, Hamilton, Gracie and a number of New York financiers met at the mansion to establish the New York Evening Post, which changed its name in 1934 to the New York Post and remains the nation’s oldest continuously published newspaper.

Washington Irving—pioneering American author of short stories including The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle—wrote in 1813 that Gracie’s “country seat was one of my strongholds last summer, as I lived in its vicinity. It is a charming, warm-hearted family and the old gentleman has the soul of a prince.”

My favorite story, however, is one that might be apocryphal, but was told by one of Gracie’s great, great granddaughters. When Louis Philippe I, the future “King of the French” (title adjusted in this brief interval of royal restoration after Napoleon’s fall) arrived as a guest, one of Archibald’s daughters was disappointed, exclaiming that he cannot be a king if he has no crown on his head! A guest was the overheard to murmur, “These days kings are happy to be wearing their head without crowns.”

As the official residence of New York City’s mayors since 1942, Gracie Mansion has continued to be a venue for entertaining major political and other figures of renown. Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, signed the guest book on New Year’s Day, 1950. Presidents Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, First Lady Rosalynn Carter, and Vice President Joseph Biden visited the house while in office. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton were guests several years after his presidency.

Princess Margaret of Great Britain (the late sister of Queen Elizabeth II), and Princess Grace of Monaco, aka actress Grace Kelly, brought a touch of royalty.

Mayor Wagner greets Dr. & Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr. at New York City Hall / World Telegram & Sun photo by Phil Stanziola

In 1964, Mayor Robert F. Wagner accompanied home a great American: civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was then in New York to lobby for a special commission to investigate the NYPD in the wake of the shooting of an unarmed teenage boy in nearby Harlem. His effort failed.

Actors Charlie Chaplin, Angela Lansbury, and Sophia Loren, and musicians as diverse as Leonard Bernstein, Maestro of the New York Philharmonic, jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, Rapper Jay Z, and pop singer Ricky Martin have all been guests.

Three last stories further exemplify the hospitality awaiting visiting dignitaries:

In the fall of 1969, Mayor John V. Lindsay gave Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir a gala reception. As the event coincided with the weeklong Jewish holiday of Succoth, he arranged to have built on Gracie Mansion’s grounds a traditional sukkah, the tent-like temporary shelter symbolizing the holy holiday.

Mayor Edward I. Koch enjoyed telling the story about his surprise visitor on August 14, 1987, when returning from a brief hospitalization after for a minor stroke. Mother Teresa, the world-famous humanitarian, had met the Mayor on previous visits to New York and decided to make an unannounced “sick call” to pray for his good health. Koch was most grateful and asked what he could do for her. She said it would be helpful if she could have two parking permits for the duration of her visit. He was happy to comply and also gave her a package of his favorite chocolate chip cookies baked by the Gracie Mansion chef. Today that mayoral well-wisher is known as Saint Teresa of Kolkata.

Nelson Mandela was a guest of Mayor Dinkins at Gracie Mansion/photo by Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office.

Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999 and a Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader for human rights, had spent nearly three decades in prison for fighting to end the apartheid government of South Africa. Just a few months after his release in 1990, he embarked on a global “Freedom Tour” with New York City as his first stop. Mandela and his then wife Winnie stayed as the honored, guests of Mayor David N. Dinkins and First Lady Joyce Dinkins. Although security was tight, a local resident recently related to one of the docents that he remembered seeing Mandela enjoying his freedom by taking walks in the neighborhood.

When New York City can safely reopen after the novel coronavirus pandemic, Gracie Mansion will again offer free public tours and greet guests with renewed vigor.

Mina Weiner
Writer, Researcher, and Docent Guide at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
June 2020

Say Her Name by Jennifer Packer

Say her name and solemnly vow
Never to forget, or allow
Our sisters’ lives to be erased
Their presence cannot be replaced
This senseless slaughter must stop now.
– Zetta Elliott from Say Her Name, (Poems to Empower)

“Say Her Name” by Jennifer Packer was part of the She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York exhibit at Gracie Mansion.

Jennifer Packer, who received her B. A. from the Tyler University School of Art of Temple University in 2007 and her M.F.A. from Yale University School of Art in 2012, has said that she is “interested in the transmission of emotional information through painting.” Her oeuvre includes a large group of intimate portraits of the people she is closest to. They do not reflect what her subjects look like, but rather how the artist feels about them and their relationship.

She sums it up best, “It’s not figures, not bodies, but humans I am painting.”

Around 2012, Packer turned to painting bouquets of flowers as a substitute for painting personal relationships. As the Black Lives Matter movement brought greater attention to acts of violence against African American men and women, Packer painted funerary arrangements as a visual protest and touching memorial to those killed. Each bouquet represented a specific loss.

In July of 2013, a 28-year-old woman was arrested and jailed for a minor traffic violation. Three days later, while under police custody, she was found hanged in her Waller County, Texas jail cell. Her death was ruled a suicide. Though it was found that required policies regarding arrest and incarceration were not followed, the grand jury failed to indict the arresting officer, the county sheriff or the jail staff. Her story, as described by the media, was deeply disturbing and the artist felt herself grieving for a woman she never knew or saw even in photographs. She decided to honor the deceased by painting a floral bouquet. Rather than a traditional orderly funeral arrangement, her agitated canvas depicts flowers and leaves in disarray. Solvent-thinned paint runs down the surface. Black pigment, perhaps representing death, seems to be bearing down on the once live blossoms.

The title of the piece, “Say Her Name,” was taken from the hash tag coined in May 2015 by the African American Policy Forum in their report seeking to raise awareness of gender-specific ways in which black women are subjects of fatal acts of racial injustice. The #SayHerName movement commemorates the women who have lost their lives to police brutality and anti-black violence. Another name, Breonna Taylor, was added to the list on May 30 of this year, when Louisville, Kentucky police stormed her apartment using a no-knock warrant and searching for two people already in custody.

I believe tour participants who confronted Jennifer Packer’s painting when it hung in the Susan E. Wagner Wing during last year’s Gracie Mansion Conservancy exhibit, She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York 1919-2019 were moved and distressed after learning about the inspiration for the artist’s mournful and impactful tribute to a young black woman.

The grief and remembrance inherent in the painting compels one to “say her name:” Sandra Bland.

Docent Guide, Writer, and Researcher at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
June 2020

Yesterday by Carmen Herrera

Yesterday by Carmen Herrera 1987. Photo by Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office.

Born in Cuba in 1915, Ms. Herrera studied art and architecture in Havana and Paris then moved to New York in 1939 with her American husband. After studies at the Art Students League, she was a frequent visitor to the Whitney Studio Club, then open on West 8th Street, home today to the New York Studio School.


Carmen Herrera’s Yesterday displayed in the Yellow Parlor of Gracie Mansion for She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York. Photo by Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office.

Back in Paris after the war until 1953, the artist developed a distilled, geometric style of abstraction, reducing her palette to three colors for each composition, then further to just two. Herrera’s ascetic compositions, which prefigured the development of Minimalism by almost a decade, did not find a warm reception when she returned to New York at a time when Abstract Expressionism reigned supreme. As both a woman and an immigrant, she faced significant discrimination in the art world yet persisted and continued undeterred to work with a disciplined but highly sophisticated exploration of color and form.
She stated, “I believe that I will always be in awe of the straight line, its beauty is what keeps me painting.” Her painting Yesterday exemplifies that vision ideally. It held place of prominence in last year’s Gracie Mansion Conservancy exhibit, She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York, 1919-2019 shown on the centennial of the 19th amendment.
During Pride Month 2020 amidst the Covid-19 NY Pause, the story of the painting’s 1987 origin calls for explanation. Yesterday was created along with a pendant picture entitled Today (alas not on view at Gracie Mansion), which together mourn a close friend of the artist who was then succumbing to the global AIDS pandemic. One work recalls his final day, while its pairing looks back to it in immediate grief.

Ms. Herrera turned 105 years old in May 2020 and is still active in the wake of her thrilling but long overdue 2016 career retrospective in the gleaming riverfront galleries of the Whitney Museum.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
June 2020

Trompe L'Oiel at Gracie Mansion 1799-2020: The Alpha Workshops' Faux Marbre Floor

Gracie Mansion is a rare surviving Federal Period home, built by immigrant Archibald Gracie as a riverside escape from the tiny New York City of 1799.

The sunlight illuminates the painted, fake marble floor of the foyer of Gracie Mansion as guests admire the art of the Windows on the City: Looking Out at Gracie’s New York exhibit. Photo credit: Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office.

Since 1942, the landmark building has fulfilled three concurrent functions: mayoral residence*, home office for any First Family members living there, and The People’s House. In the last instance, it allows the public to enjoy tours of the historic interior. In addition to the fin de siècle 18th-century original wing, Gracie Mansion has a “new” wing named in honor of former First Lady Susan E. Wagner and opened in 1966 by mayor John V. Lindsay. Tour guests venture throughout.

The Gracie foyer (also referred to as the front hall), was—and still is—the family entrance. In Archibald Gracie’s day, foyers were large rooms because they doubled as a small ballroom for parties and dancing. Today, when crossing the threshold, your eyes are drawn to the floor, which, at first inspection, looks like a checkerboard of black and white marble.

Not so.

During the Federal age, floors were never bare and stone tiles or fine parquet were hard to come by regardless of personal means. Not to cover low-quality flooring planks was considered bad taste or, worse, a measure of lowly economic status. A well-to-do family (or one with aspirations to greater wealth), would make sure their floor was covered in some manner, whether it be a very rare stone; matting; carpeting; coarse, colorful stiffened cloth; or paint applied in some way that would to fool the eye! Such decoration is often called by its French translation trompe l’oiel with faked marble as just one option.

Mayor Edward I. Koch, who founded the Gracie Mansion Conservancy in 1981, set out with a team of experts and generous volunteers to restore and renovate the mansion over the coming years in a way that mimicked what it might have been in Gracie’s day. Preservationist Lisa Krieger researched floorings of the period and selected the color scheme of ochre and charcoal. Decorative artist Stephen Gemberling designed a “fake marble” (or again the French faux marbre), diamond pattern, similar to what might have been used in 1810, when Gracie himself redecorated his then decade-old summer house. Near its center is a compass rose, paying homage to the original owner’s success as a shipping merchant.

A full view of the painted, fake marble floor of the foyer of Gracie Mansion just before the open house for the New York 1942 exhibit. Photo credit: Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office.

The fake marble floor of the foyer was re-painted at the start of the Bloomberg administration in 2002, under the direction of designer Jamie Drake. The skilled artists who applied the paint were craftsmen from the Alpha Workshops, a studio that teaches and employs people living with HIV. During Pride Month of 2020, it is worthwhile to note that the workshop still operates. Their slogan is “Creating Beauty, Changing Lives.”

Now, as you enter the foyer, the “marble” floor leads you to the staircase where you can imagine ten mayors and their families over the last 78 years descending the stairs from their private quarters and walking across that beautiful floor to go about their day.

We look forward to welcoming you back to The People’s House for a tour as soon as today’s necessary NY Pause has ended.

Theresa LaSalle
Docent Guide at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
June 2020

* The exception was from 2002 to 2013 when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg opted not to live at Gracie Mansion.

Monumental Library Bookcase from the Revolutionary Era

This Federal-era library bookcase was once owned by Colonel Nicholas Fish of George Washington’s Continental Army.

Gracie Mansion is a fitting home-away-from-home for this massive library bookcase, a symbol of paternalism, social standing, and outsized political ambition. Currently residing in the Blue Room of the Susan W. Wagner Wing, it is one of several pieces of furniture on loan from the New-York Historical Society.

The ten-foot tall mahogany and pine library bookcase descended through the eminent New York family of Colonel Nicholas Fish (1758-1833), the original owner. Fish was a decorated Revolutionary War officer who served under the Marquis de Lafayette, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington. After the war, he served as adjutant general for the State of New York and became a New York City alderman. His wife, Elizabeth Stuyvesant, was a direct descendant of Peter Stuyvesant, the colonial New Amsterdam governor.

Nicholas and Elizabeth Fish married in 1803. As a wedding present, her father, Petrus Stuyvesant, built the couple a Federal-style brick townhouse on Stuyvesant Street, land that was part of the family’s colonial estate. The library bookcase was probably part of that gift. Four years after the infamous Hamilton-Burr duel, the couple named their eldest son after the fallen statesman.
The couple entertained many of the day’s luminaries, including Lafayette during his 1824 tour of the United States. To receive dignitaries, their home needed to be suitably decorated with fashionable, English-style furniture. The elegant library bookcase, of figured mahogany, and with geometric inlay, sinuous urn-shaped mullions, and a hidden, fall-front desk (concealed at center to resemble a drawer), certainly fit the bill. In fact, design of the bookcase, urn mullions, and desk interior— a baize-covered writing surface backed with a bank of drawers and pigeon holes—relates to examples in The Cabinet Makers’ London Book of Prices, published in London in 1793. Wealthy Americans took pride in the English-style furniture they purchased, especially after the Revolutionary War. Ironically, this included statesmen and decorated veterans of the war, who, like Fish, esteemed London-style furnishings and household goods.
Col. Fish bequeathed his “book case library and books” to his son, Hamilton, in his last will and testament. By that time, the Honorable Hamilton Fish (1808–1893) had begun a distinguished political career that included both Senator and Governor of the State of New York and US Secretary of State. A treasured inheritance from his father, the library bookcase was also a material affirmation of his ambition.

Hamilton Fish undoubtedly passed the bookcase to his son Nicholas (1848–1902), a former diplomat and banker who served as a presidential elector for the State of New York during the 1896 election. After his death and aware of the significance of the prized bookcase, his widow, Clemence Bryce Fish, donated it to the New-York Historical Society. It came in 1903, the centennial of its creation.

And later two more Fish descendants served in the US Congress, enlivening a New York dynasty at one time fabled.

New York’s Primary Election and the coming political season reminds visitors of the history embedded in decorative arts as being looked at today under a welcome and widening lens.

Debra Schmidt Bach, Ph.D.
Curator of Decorative Arts, New-York Historical Society
June 2020

Sarah, Abram, and Charles Short: The Enslaved People of Gracie Mansion

The original manuscript for the New York Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery was on view during the Windows on The City: Looking Out at Gracie’s New York installation at Gracie Mansion.

In 2015, the Gracie Mansion Conservancy engaged public historian Kathleen Hulser to create a more thorough and accurate curriculum for local middle schoolers eagerly welcomed at Gracie along with their teachers, chaperoning parents, and other mentors. The lessons of that curriculum have reached beyond visiting students to inform all public tours since the reopening of the landmark that same year, when an inaugural art installation added to the existing historic fabric: Windows on The City: Looking Out at Gracie’s New York.

The new curriculum explains that though Archibald Gracie was a member of New York’s Manumission Society (whose mission was to end slavery), he was also a successful merchant trading between Great Britain and the new American republic and profiting from the export of goods produced by skilled enslaved people. Among them were cotton, tobacco, and indigo.

In addition, Gracie bears a stain of violent hypocrisy with ownership of fellow human beings. In the years 1800 and 1801, Gracie freed three enslaved people, Sarah, Abram, and Charles Short, and increased his new abolitionist impulse with support of the African Free School. Ms. Hulser, along with Columbia College history undergraduate Emily Anne Gruber, confirmed these facts with the discovery in City records of what is called the “Libers of Conveyance,” effectively a certificate always to be kept at hand proving freedom to any who demand it. The lives and labor of Sarah, Abram, and Charles Short are the most significant and sacred addition to the narrative now told by the Conservancy and its fine docent guides: three Americans were held in bondage by Archibald Gracie at the time of the namesake mansion was built.

The Windows on The City installation included the original 1799 manuscript of An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery on loan from the New York State Library in Albany. Full emancipation did not come to New York until 1827, far later than neighboring states.

Now and forever more the full story of the mansion’s advent will be told with the names and emergent identities of those who labored there.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
June 2020

Haven by Elizabeth Colomba and Weeksville Heritage thanks to Joan Maynard

Though Haven by Elizabeth Colomba has the look of a 19th century painting, it was completed in 2015.

A vivid painting by New York artist Elizabeth Colomba, shown in last year’s She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York, 1919-2019 exhibit, owes its inspiration in part to the work of preservation pioneer, Joan Maynard. A 1970 photograph* of Ms. Maynard is one of four selected from the crucible of the landmarks preservation movement as a metaphor for community empowerment and is now on display in CATALYST: Art and Social Justice.

The historic connective tissue of these two works is today’s Weeksville Heritage Center in Brownsville. Brooklyn. Ms. Maynard helped discover and sustain its critical historic narrative, while a half century later Ms. Colomba extended its reverberating currency with a painting called Haven: a single essential word.

Haven is a fictional portrait of a couple overlooking a home in Weeksville, founded in 1838 by John Weeks as a safe, self-governing enclave of African American freemen as well as newly emancipated and fugitive slaves. While full abolition became law in New York State in 1827, Weeksville’s creation preceded national emancipation by a quarter century. At its founding, the homes still standing today were on what was then known as Hunterfly Road. A small sign posted on a tree behind the contemplative pair in Haven shows the date 1863, concurrent with the City’s deadly Draft Riots when African Americans were murdered by young white men out of angry opposition to Civil War conscription. That bloody attack reinforced the sense of safety that only a free town like Weeksville could provide.

Preservationist Joan Maynard with students in front of the Hunterfly Road Houses in Weeksville, Brooklyn in 1970.

Colomba’s witness comes thanks to the keen eye, exacting research, and indomitable spirit of Joan Maynard at a time when few could comprehend or even perceive what she would extract from the erasure of ensuing urban fabric. By engaging neighborhood children in her early archeology at Weeksville, a worthy the sense of identity, heritage, and civic stewardship were assured from the start.

History once lost and nearly erased brings together two great women, the collective pasts of all New Yorkers informs the present and the future.

Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
June 2020

* We do not know the name of Joan Maynard’s photographer. If any readers can assign credit for the photograph, please let us know so that we can update the record.

Exiles of Erin: An Anonymous Broadside from 1809

This rare surviving broadside begins defiantly with the manifesto: Exiles of Erin! Read what follows! And if you have in you a spark of that feeling which distinguishes true Irishmen, resent the infamous treatment our countrymen have this day been subjected to!

This “broadside” poster was a call to action for new Irish immigrants to New York City in 1809. Courtesy of the New-York Historical Society Library.

This early prototype of crowd sourcing was printed for posting and hand distribution as a call to resistance against a social status quo that denied Irish immigrants the same protections of the law and any semblance of equality of opportunity. It recalls the successive waves of immigration that grew New York from a rural outpost to a global city over the course of just a few decades. Though the city was no longer the sole purview of a Northern European Protestant elite, prejudice against “papists” (a term used to disparage adherents of Roman Catholicism), came into sharp focus with the arrival of a large number of Irish immigrants who came to US shores to escape poverty and famine.

This ephemeral document lent by the New-York Historical Society was shown at Gracie Mansion five years ago in a special installation called Windows on the City: Looking Out at Gracie’s New York. It offered rare evidence of a struggle in the past that continues today for new immigrant groups. Too often the same “exiles” label befell other immigrants: fellow Catholics immigrating from Italy, Orthodox Greeks, and Eastern European Jews forced into a massive, ghettoized quarantine in 1892 for typhus and cholera. Meanwhile, immigration from China was banned entirely for more than half a century due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Such calls for action have long catalyzed change in the struggle for immigrant justice.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
June 2020

If You Aren’t Political Your Personal Life Should Be Exemplary by Jenny Holzer

“I used language because I wanted to offer content that people—not necessarily art people—could understand.”

Jenny Holzer’s “Truism” plaque hangs in the ballroom of the Susan E Wagner Wing of Gracie Mansion. Photo credit: Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office

Jenny Holzer is a Neo-Conceptual artist who explores the influence of words and their use as a direct means to engage the public. Her use of language in art has proven ahead of its time since our culture is now defined by headlines, whether on the Internet, in text messages, news feeds, advertising, or Tweets.

Probably Holzer’s best-known works are her “Truisms,” terse and unadorned texts that were displayed in public spaces. In order to reach as many people as possible, her statements have been seen on public buildings, LED displays, marble benches, billboards, and metal plaques as well as in museums and art galleries. As her metallic plaques often mimic the size, shape, and material of those affixed to landmark buildings, they share a similar sense of authority. Holzer’s texts can be enlightening, provocative, or personal—and range from issues like feminism, poverty and AIDS, to no issues at all. Her intent is to enlighten; to stimulate public discussion; or, best, to trigger both.

“If You Aren’t Political Your Personal Life Should Be Exemplary” from 1998 is an example of the artist’s interest in fomenting debate. In this case, she asks the viewer to consider the role of the individual in a participatory democracy. She questions whether or not, as citizens in a time of stark division, we can afford to be mere bystanders; isn’t it our responsibility to be heard and active at all times?

This “Truism” is particularly timely in the context of a national campaign season now confronting such very serious issues as global pandemic, historic racial inequity, broad economic displacement, and climate change. While the plaque was cast twenty-two years ago, Holzer’s text eschewing complacency and encouraging political involvement is relevant anew—perhaps more than has been the case in generations.

Former President Barack Obama in a speech at the University of Illinois in September of 2018 echoed Ms. Holzer when he urged that audience to be political. He said, “The biggest threat to our democracy is indifference. The biggest threat to our democracy is cynicism—a cynicism that’s led too many people to turn away from politics and stay home on Election Day.”

Plan to see this in person when The People’s House can safely reopen.

Mina Weiner
Writer, Researcher, and Docent Guide at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
June 2020

Les Jardins de Paris: The Wall Paper of the Dining Room at Gracie Mansion

In honor of Bastille Day, a French national holiday celebrated on July 14, I have written about a uniquely French feature of Gracie Mansion: a 19th century wall paper hanging in the dining room of the Old House. The Old House is the original structure that Archibald Gracie (1755-1829) lived in. Gracie would not have seen this wall paper, as the current, preserved antique paper was installed only in the 20th century. We do know, however, that 19th century guests of the Gracie family who dined in the Old House are known to have remarked about seeing what would have been an earlier installation of a “scenic paper.”

What is a “scenic paper?” Wall paper is believed to have first been made in China in the 14th century but only produced in Europe in the 15th century. French wall paper manufacture became important in the 1770s as a new age of consumers began to choose it over textiles. Scenic wall papers were popular during the 19th century, giving the viewer an expansive vision of travel, leisure, and fantasy. The viewer would be transported into this wondrous world by the colorful scenery. Visions of exotic nature, political events, and famous cities were popular.

The scenic wall paper in the dining room at Gracie Mansion is called “Les Jardins Français” (The French Gardens), or “Les Jardins de Paris” (The Gardens of Paris). It was designed by the artist Pierre Antoine Mongin (1761-1827) and wood-block printed by Zuber et Cie in 1822, a company founded in 1804 in Mulhouse, France. It was installed at Gracie Mansion during the Koch administration renovation of the house (1981-4) by decorator Albert Hadley (1920-2012). During the Bloomberg administration renovation, it underwent restoration by designer Jamie Drake. The paper had been found rolled up with canvas backing in the attic of a home up the Hudson River by the owner, who knew from articles in the news that there was a major renovation going on at Gracie Mansion. The owner contacted the Gracie Mansion Conservancy and the rare work was brought down and installed.

What are some of the special features about the wall paper? The scenic wall papers printed by Jean Zuber (1773-1835), when positioned on the wall for installation, were meant to have the skyline painted up to the ceiling. In other words, an artisan would paint above the paper as necessary, in such a way that the viewer would not notice the gap between the paper and the ceiling without close inspection. In fact, when installed at Gracie Mansion, this additional painting was necessary. Another special feature of the paper at Gracie is that it was found backed with a canvas material that helped preserve it.

What is depicted in the wall paper? The paper reflected a “romantic” vision of the “antique” or ancient past, though not an actual historic vista. It is not only a “romantic” paper because of the romantic couples you see depicted in the gardens but also “romantic” in an artistic fashion. Mongin’s work, with its fake ruins or “follies” as they were called which dot the landscape, depict a nostalgic yearning for the ancient world of Greek and Roman times. There is also an Egyptian Obelisk included in the lush European gardens. Egyptian style would become the height of fashion during the Napoleonic period in France. The paper would have been a popular conversation piece for those at the dining table, to recall a “Grand Tour” of Europe or to imagine exotic travel that they might never have the chance to experience. Archaeological excavations had begun to bring 19th century audiences the excitement of the ancient past, also a part of a “virtual” tourist element as well, long before the world of the 21st century could show you from a photograph or video. For viewers during the Federal Period in America, the landscapes would have also inspired patriotism, as the Romans had a Senate and the new nation also had a “Senate.” The architecture of Washington, DC was designed with the ancient world in mind.

We hope you enjoy looking at the Zuber scenic wall paper at Gracie Mansion and finding what most delights you in this vibrant vision from the past. If you are interested in seeing other famous 19th century French scenic papers installations, two of note are the 1812 “Les Monuments de Paris” (The Monuments of Paris) by the artist Jean Broc (1780-1850) and printed by Dufour et Cie in the American Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the 1834 Zuber French wall paper, “Vues de l’Amérique du Nord” (Views of North America) designed by Jean-Julien Deltil (1791-1863) at the White House in the Diplomatic Room, installed (1961-62) by Jacqueline Kennedy during her famous renovation of the White House.

Eliza de Sola Mendes
Docent, researcher, and writer for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
July 2020

Before Gracie Mansion: The Busy History of Horn’s Hook

An engraving, titled “York-Island, with a view of the seats of Mr. A. Gracie, Mr. Church etc. – drawn, engraved & published by W. Birch, Springland near Bristol, Penns’a,” dates from 1808

Surveying Gracie Mansion from its surroundings in Carl Schurz Park, it is easy to imagine that this elegant house has always adorned the landscape. Yet, as immemorial as the mansion may seem, this part of upper Manhattan played multiple roles in human affairs long before Archibald Gracie built his residence here in 1799. Indeed, these pre-Gracie inhabitants evoke much of Manhattan’s early history—often in surprising ways.

First to come were the Native Americans. Some ten to six thousand years ago, bands of people arrived in the area, migrating between seasonal campsites they used for hunting, gathering, and fishing. These were the ancestors of the Lenape, the people among whom the Dutch, other European colonists, and enslaved Africans started settling in 1624-26. It is possible that Lenape bands used the shore of what are now the East Eighties for fishing. The landscape ecologist Eric W. Sanderson believes that one of six possible East River fishing camps may have existed near the foot of East 80th Street, where a fresh-water stream ran into the river.

This drawing of Belview, the home of Jacob Walton, is now in the collection of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy.

The Dutch, who ruled the entire region from 1624 to 1664 and built the fledgling city of New Amsterdam at Manhattan’s southern tip, began transforming the woods, meadows, and wetlands of the area now known as Yorkville. Against a backdrop of Lenape displacement—the outcome of land sales, epidemic diseases, and bloody wars that drove surviving Natives out of Manhattan—European settlers gained permission to farm the land from the Dutch West India Company. In 1646, a Dutch immigrant, Sybout Claessen, was granted about 31 acres of land “beginning at the Hook of Hellegat, where Hogs Island ends”— i.e., on the East River shore facing the cluster of mid-river rocks known as “Hell Gate” and the tip of what is now Roosevelt Island. This area, Gracie Mansion’s future site, became known as Hoorn’s Hoeck or Horn’s Hook, because Claessen came from the town of Hoorn in the Netherlands.

He was not the only new inhabitant. In the 1630s, another Dutch farmer, Jan Claessen Alteras, had occupied Hogs Island, which provided quarries of stone for construction. And in 1639, a map shows “the quarter of the blacks, the Company’s slaves” near the mouth of a creek running into the East River at what is now 74th Street. We know that by 1643 these enslaved African men owned by the Dutch West India Company had to live in a barracks in New Amsterdam and were used as a workforce for building the colony’s fortifications, roads, and other features. This earlier rural “quarter” may have been a campsite where the enslaved laborers cut timber for use in the construction of the growing city to the south.

With the English conquest of New Amsterdam in 1664, a new cast of characters took the stage. In 1666, New York’s English governor included Hoorn’s Hook in the village of Harlem, whose southeastern boundary he defined as the East River shore at what is now 74th Street. Colonist Samuel Waldron—a deacon of the Harlem Dutch Reformed Church then standing about two miles further north—acquired 115 acres of land at Horn’s Hook in 1710. His son William Waldron sold part of the tract fronting on the river to merchant Jacob Walton in 1770.

A scion of New York City’s emerging elite, Jacob’s family tree included Gerardus Beekman, a former acting governor of the colony. His uncle was merchant-shipbuilder “Boss” William Walton, one of the seaport’s wealthiest men. No slouch himself, Jacob Walton married Mary Cruger, daughter of another of the city’s mercantile and political dynasties. He started a promising political career, gaining election to the colonial assembly as an ally of the powerful DeLancey family. In 1771, the colony’s treasurer reimbursed the civic-minded Walton for his expenses in helping to import the equestrian statue of George III erected on Bowling Green to commemorate the repeal of the hated Stamp Act. Nobody foresaw that Walton and the statue were both destined for unhappy futures.

Not to be outdone by cousins who were building lavish rural retreats and townhouses (including lower Manhattan’s foremost Georgian mansion, William Walton II’s residence), Jacob planned an elegant manor for his family at Horn’s Hook. Completed in 1774 and christened Belview, the limestone-faced house had a two-story central pavilion flanked by one-story wings. A surviving drawing suggests its quintessentially Georgian grace and equipoise. Belview also came equipped with a subterranean tunnel leading from the house to the nearby East River shore. Unearthed by workmen in Carl Schurz Park in 1913, the tunnel may have been designed by the canny Walton as an escape route in the event that the city’s radical Sons of Liberty turned their ire in his direction. Less romantically, the passage may have been a simple convenience for moving goods and people to and from boats linking Belview to the city over seven miles distant.

If the former surmise is accurate, Walton proved to be prescient.  While patriots toppled George III’s statue to mark America’s independence in 1776, the loyalist Walton moved himself and his family out of Horn’s Hook to safer quarters on Long Island. Soon the American Revolution would arrive literally on Belview’s vacated doorstep, with devastating results.

Steven H. Jaffe, Ph.D.

Public Historian, Curator, and Lecturer

Author of New York at War: Four Centuries of Combat, Fear, and Intrigue in Gotham (Basic Books, 2012) and Who Were The Founding Fathers? Two Hundred Years of Reinventing American History (Henry Holt, 1996)

When a Fence Became a Window: The WPA at Gracie Mansion, 1942

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was a practical man.

This watercolor painting of Gracie Mansion dates from 1942 and was included in our New York 1942 exhibit, courtesy of the La Guardia and Wagner Archives, La Guardia Community College, and The City University of New York. We don’t know the name of the artist. If any readers can assign credit for the photograph, please let us know so that we can update the record.

New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses had spent his first eight years at City Hall trying to convince him of the merits of establishing an official mayoral residence. The conversation was tough. For example, Mayor LaGuardia rebuffed Moses’s risible initial suggestion of a gigantic 1905 neo-Loire Valley chateau on Riverside Drive at West 73rd Street.

Paradoxically the acute national emergency of entry into war was a catalyzing force; LaGaurdia like President Roosevelt shared an urgent concern about Nazi bombs and worked to spread caution and preparedness. In a word fear and, in turn, a freedom from it. Gracie Mansion would serve as a more secure “headquarters” as well as a home and, in both roles, outside the dense fabric of gridded streets.

“It is cheaper to have it tenanted than to have watchmen to protect it,” remarked Mayor
LaGuardia, as he, at last, agreed to move officially to shipping tycoon Archibald Gracie’s 1799 summer home at 88th and East End in Manhattan. He flinched at the term “Gracie Mansion” and threw his support to the cozy title “Gracie Farm.” With Moses finally securing LaGuardia’s approval to make this landmark Yorkville estate along the East River a kind of “Little White House,” he set out (as he did so well) to tap WPA dollars for its sorely-needed renovation.

“WPA” is the acronym for the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal-era agency (1935-1943) that responded to the broken-down economy by building up public infrastructure. Moses’s strategy to tap into this agency also tapped into Mayor LaGuardia’s goal to boost post-war morale, often by finding work for New Yorkers.

On January 22, 1942, WPA forces settled onto the grounds of the mayor’s future Carl Schurz Park retreat for a $25,000 restoration project scheduled to last two to three months. The project’s architectural blueprint and ensuing back-and-forth with the public still provide a window into the urgency of ensuring New Yorkers that the government was active and accessible in 1942 as the war tore through society and the economy alike.

A new roof and clapboards, a porch and “ornamental” railings constituted the outdoor renovations. A “door between the dining room and pantry closed to accommodate lavatories” coupled with colonial stair railings were on the WPA’s to-do list for the indoor work. “It will be necessary to fence off the mansion and to provide a vehicular entrance,” Moses informed the New York City Board of Estimate. This detail prompted scrutiny. New Yorkers erupted with anxieties that this fence would isolate the mayor from his constituents. Quick to shut down speculation of aloofness, Mayor LaGuardia himself defended the practical purpose of this fence, explaining that portions of the grounds required enclosure due to the exposed ventilators of the nearby tunnel. (No explicit reference was ever made to war-time security even as it surely was important even in these more trusting times.)

“May we have the pleasure of serving you?” resounded from the mayor’s mailbox, as contractors sought to join the WPA in restoring Gracie Mansion. Strategic in such outreach, many companies pledged to match Mayor LaGuardia’s pragmatism. “We know that our prices are consistently fair,” assured Weissberger Moving & Storage Co., Inc. Just as the WPA itself breathed new import into civic participation, these contractors emphasized that they worked with New Yorkers’ interests in mind. “We are mighty proud of this record and attribute our success to the people of New York,” vowed a carpet cleaning company.

Despite the WPA’s involvement, New Yorkers pummeled Moses with questions about whether the metal that had been funneled into Gracie Mansion’s fence could have supported wartime industry.

“Junk, all junk,” was Moses’s reply. The team had used materials that had lingered on the waterfront without use to the war effort to secure Gracie Mansion’s 6’ tall and 400’ long fence. Moses also reminded skeptics that his prior offer to donate 1,520 tons of scrap metal to wartime industry had been rejected.

On May 21, 1942, the project was complete.

With four trips from their former and much beloved six-room apartment at 1274 Fifth Avenue to Gracie Mansion, the LaGuardias had moved all their belongings by May 26, 1942. Four trips for Mrs. Marie LaGuardia and the Columbia Storage Warehouse Company, that is. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia was in Quebec for the Canadian-United States Joint Defense Board meeting, a coincidence that drew teases from New York to Boston. The Daily Boston Globe headlined, “the Mayor, like any other husband on moving day, was out of town.”

Children encircled the estate, jostling for a peek inside the fence as painters ducked in for final touches. Although New Yorkers had interpreted these restorations as a premonition of detached governance, the LaGuardia family immediately proved otherwise with its demeanor. Neighbors often reported sightings of the first family members walking their dog (Mac) in Carl Schurz Park and hanging their laundry to dry.

As soon as public safety allows, visitors to Gracie Mansion can again pass through the fence to participate in weekly historical tours and to join in affinity group celebrations. We look forward to returning to these traditions in a safer time and, for now, we hope you enjoy the peeks beyond the fence and into Gracie Mansion that this website’s photographs and narratives share.

Emily Gruber
Researcher and Writer for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
July 2020

This essay was adapted from an essay originally published by Emily Gruber on the “Living New Deal” website.

The Flag and Seal of the City of New York

We feel that the City should have a flag which is distinctly our own, which shall tell the story of the City’s origin and growth.
—John B. Pine, 1915, Editor of the official booklet “The Seal and Flag of the City of New York 1665-1915”

A view into the Wagner Ballroom at Gracie Mansion with the flags of the United States and the City of New York. The tables in the Ballroom are arranged for proper social distancing during meetings during the summer of 2020.

When visitors arrive at Gracie Mansion, their first glimpse is the elegant robins egg blue Susan E. Wagner Ballroom. Facing them there is a federal mantle with the familiar red, white and blue American flag at its left and the orange, white and blue flag of the City of New York on its right. The American flag is decorated with 50 stars, one for each state, and 13 horizontal bars, one for each of the original colonies. The City flag has three wide vertical panels, the center panel dominated by a seal. Like the “Stars and Stripes,” the colors and seal have great historic significance.

In the year 1915, to commemorate what was then the 250th anniversary of the installation of the first mayor and board of alderman on June 24, 1665, Mayor John Purroy Mitchell decided to establish an official flag and corporate seal for the City of New York. To that end, he appointed a committee whose members included representatives of the City’s Art Commission, the State Historian, the New-York Historical Society and other organizations assigned to research and propose appropriate iconography. Their recommendations were adopted formally on the June 24,1915 anniversary. Except for two minor changes in 1977 during the administration of Mayor Abraham D. Beame, the City’s flag and seal have remained the same for the ensuing 105 years.

As again stated by committee member John Pine, “The flag is no mere decoration. It is a page of history and its colors perpetuate a great tradition.”

A detail view of the flag of the City of New York, including the City seal.

The colors selected come from the dynastic flag of William I, a 16th-century ancestor of the Dutch monarchy who is credited with initiating the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule and establishing the Netherland’s House of Orange-Nassau. These were the colors flown by Henry Hudson in 1609, when he first encountered the Algonquian tribe and their river Muhheakantuck, which as early as 1740 started to bear his name.

Orange, white, and blue were also the colors of the Dutch West India Company and the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam in 1626. It is interesting to note that since its creation in 1962, the New York Mets National League Baseball team has branded itself with colors cued by the City’s ’s flag.

Meanwhile, the seal shown on the flag (and all official City materials), descends from one adopted on July 24, 1686 by a colonial authority called the Common Council. The original characteristics of this “Seale of this Citty” largely survived over the years to once more inform the official seal approved in 1915. The original 17th-century version was oval with a shield decorated by a windmill in its center. Between the vanes of the windmill were two beavers and two flour barrels. On its left was a sailor and on its right a native Algonquin. Above the shield was a crown representing the Duke of York, after whom the City was renamed when taken over by the British. In 1784, following the British evacuation from the City, a symbolic bald eagle replaced the ducal crown.

The round seal made official in 1915 brought only minor changes, ones that were considered more historically correct. The eagle now—as then—sits on a hemisphere at the crest. The windmill, often used in coats of arms of Dutch families, is in this case a reminder of the Dutch use of windmills in the Netherlands and in New Amsterdam. The beavers and flour barrels refer to the Dutch West India Company’s lucrative fur trade and later, under the British, the milling industry that brought prosperity to New York. The figure on the left is a colonial sailor. In his right hand, he is holding a plummet, utilized to measure water depth, and above his shoulder is a cross-staff, a navigational tool used by sailors to ascertain latitude. The sailor is a reminder that shipping played a major role in the economic development of New York. From the mid nineteenth-century to the 1950s, New York was the busiest port in the world. The Native American on the right is a Lenni-Lenape, a member of the Algonquin tribe, who first inhabited the island of Manhattan; he holds a bow in his left hand.

Having the two men stand on a laurel branch is meant to symbolize peace between the existing culture and the newly arrived, and soon dispossessing, settlers. A ribbon with the Latin words Sigillum Civitatis Novi Eboraci (seal of the City of New York) used to form a half circle at the bottom but, in 1977, it was dropped and replaced by an encircling laurel wreath, the ancient Greek emblem of victory and honor.

The date on the seal has been changed several times since 1686, when Governor Thomas Dongan granted the City’s first charter. When the seal was officially adopted in 1915, the date given was 1664, the year the Dutch surrendered New Amsterdam to the British and it became New York. Then in 1977, the year was changed to 1625, which has been questioned by many historians ever since but purports to be the year New Netherland declared New Amsterdam to be its colonial capital.

In sum, the appropriate date for the seal is open to debate even though it appears all over public property—effectively hidden in plain sight.

In the City’s future perhaps there will be calls for new symbols—ones informed by additional attention paid to the historical facts of displacement and bondage, as well as progress and achievement. Meanwhile, when Gracie Mansion can safely reopen, close inspection will beckon anew.

Mina Rieur Weiner
Writer, researchers and docent guide at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
July 2020

1941 Team-Signed Yankee Baseball

The New York Yankees baseball team took the World Series title in 1939, 1941, and 1943 marking one of its Golden Age winning streaks and the last before the modern era.

A 1941 team-signed Yankee baseball was on display at Gracie Mansion during the New York 1942 exhibit. Photo courtesy of Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office.

The year 1941 marked its 39th New York season playing at its beloved namesake stadium in the South Bronx. After securing the American League pennant 17 games ahead of the Boston Red Sox, the team went on to win the world championship by beating the Brooklyn Dodgers in five games. Joe McCarthy managed the roster highlighted by the sensational emergence of center fielder Joe DiMaggio, whose 56 consecutive game hitting streak still stands as a major league record deemed “unbeatable.” The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor fell just two months following the victory and brought with it the departure of Joltin’ Joe and other teammates drafted for wartime service in the US Army.

Even with their temporary absence, the 1942 Yankees again won their 13th pennant nine games ahead of Boston but lost the World Series in five games against the St. Louis Cardinals. Just a year later, revenge was theirs when beating the Cardinals in another five game series to reclaim the world title.

Even though America’s entry in World War I had ended the 1918 season a generation earlier, concerns that this new global conflict would again jeopardize baseball for all leagues were set to rest on January 15, 1942 in President Roosevelt’s famous “Green Light” letter. In it Roosevelt stated, “I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going” and advocated for more night games so that hard-pressed workers could attend. The first nighttime All-Star Game took place accordingly in July 1943 at Shibe Park in Philadelphia.

In New York, however, Yankee Stadium was yet to be lighted and the Giant’s Polo Grounds became off limits with the 1942 dim-out of all nighttime illumination as enforced by Mayor La Guardia with due zeal.

The year 1942 also brought return of the segregated “Negro World Series” after a 14-year Depression era hiatus. The legendary Kansas City Monarchs of the NAL beat the NNL Washington DC Homestead Grays in six games. The series included a double header played at the old Yankee Stadium on September 13, when seven Hall of Fame players took the field: Willard Brown. Satchel Page, and Hilton Smith for the Monarchs; Ray Brown, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Jud Wilson for the defeated Grays.

In like spirit to meet demand for the national pastime amidst global strife , the chewing gum heir owner of the Chicago Cubs, Philip Wrigley, led the way in 1942 with creation of the now legendary All-American Girls Softball League. Just one yet later they added the word “Professional” to the league name as a measure of respect for the mastery of the same game but played with special rules starting with the softball itself. The AAGPBL was the subject of the 1992 film A League of Their Own, staring the then major pop star known only as Madonna.

This particular Yankees collectible by the famous maker Spalding consists of a
cushion cork center, yarn wrapping, a rubber cement coating, and loosely stitched horsehide cover. Autographs of the 1941 World Champion New York Yankees team roster adorn its entire circumference.

It was a highlight of the Conservancy’s 2017 anniversary exhibition, New York 1942, a curated installation of Gracie Mansion’s official rooms on the 75th anniversary of The People’s House becoming the mayoral residence. The objects in New York 1942 depicted the evolving landscape of New York City and the profound cultural and economic forces that were transforming the five boroughs into a crossroads of progressive change.

The Gracie Mansion Conservancy heralds the advent of baseball’s unique 2020 season. Let player safety always come first.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
July 2020

Student “Dog Tags” for New York City Schools During World War II

Rosalind Weiss Rothman’s student ID tag was part of New York 1942, a curated installation of Gracie Mansion’s official rooms on the 75th anniversary of The People’s House becoming the mayoral residence.

During the Civil War, personal identification of soldiers killed and wounded in combat was a daunting task. Record keeping for both the Union and the Confederate armies barely existed. An early attempt to identify soldiers was called “name discs” or “soldier pins” but this met with limited success. Historians estimate that as many as 50% of the graves for those killed in the Civil War were simply marked “unknown.”

In World War I, aluminum discs the size of silver half dollars were required for all military service members. They had to wear two and, in case of death, one remained attached to the body while the second was used to mark the coffin or gravesite usually near where they fought and died.

In World War II, military service members were issued a metal rectangle shaped ID tag, similar to those still used today, with a notch on its bottom edge. It was during World War II that the nickname “dog tags” was adopted. (Some historians think that the nickname “dog tags” comes from Thomas Jefferson. He wrote the first dog license law in Virginia, which required owners to license their dogs for identifying those caught killing others’ sheep!)

With like intent during World War II in New York City, teachers across the five boroughs and beyond were trained in civil defense and first aid. The Board of Education (as it was then called) distributed emergency equipment to teachers, including ID’s similar to the military “dog tags”. Students on the East and West Coasts, and near defense production areas, were to wear such IDs hanging on a little chain around their necks whenever out in public and while at school especially. The necessity resulted from fear—fear that the fascist enemy might bring the war directly to our shores with students at sudden risk of being scattered to shelter; the Board wanted a way to reunite them with their family after the crisis had passed. The tags provided a solution.

In New York City, the School Defense Council arranged for the distribution of ID tags to all public, parochial, and private schools. By 1942, 1,600,000 City school children had received tags embossed with their name, date of birth, school district, and a serial number. Students not only wore ID tags but were finger-printed too.

As part of this wartime necessity, a young Rosalind Weiss Rothman wore an ID tag while attending public school on the Upper West Side. She later recalled, “I even remember one air raid warning—not a drill—when the class was on a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History. The alarms sounded. Our tags were checked so that we could be returned to our homes. The whole city shut down.”

At Gracie Mansion for the 2017 anniversary exhibition New York 1942, the Conservancy was fortunate to have Rosalind’s circular brown dog tag on display. It was made of Bakelite, just over an inch long, with the inscription: “R.Weiss/8-12-39/8-1629NMC.”

Just seeing it made me wonder how a child and parent felt when putting this “necklace” on as one of the daily rituals for getting ready for school. With all the various tour groups going through Gracie, I recall only one chaperone saying, “Oh, I still have mine.”

As a former teacher, I’m reminded that in addition to education, teachers perhaps more then ever are expected to be all things to our students in dealing with domestic and international terrorism, school shootings, and the current novel coronavirus pandemic.

Rosalind’s ID tag shows how teachers have always given their fullest to those in their classrooms: not only to educate but to guard them safe.

Theresa LaSalle
Docent guide at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
July 2020


The History of Dog Tags

New York Historical Society

What They Didn’t Teach You About World War ll by Mike Wright

A Night in Tunisia by Dizzy Gillespie

This photograph portrait of Dizzy Gillespie, from around May 1947, by William P. Gottlieb is now part of the William P. Gottlieb Collection of the Library of Congress.

The legendary jazz musician and trumpet player John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie (1917-1993) was one of the New York artists who forged the bebop era in American Jazz during the early 1940s. He heralded the first modern expression of what is arguably America’s greatest contribution to global music. Seventy-five years ago, in 1945 with the War’s end, jazz historians mark the end of Swing Era, giving way to bebop and all that has come in its wake.

In 1942, Gillespie composed the trend-setting masterpiece, A Night in Tunisia, which remains a bebop standard, covered since then by musicians such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Ella Fitzgerald, who even added lyrics.

For the New York 1942 exhibit at Gracie Mansion, Grammy-winning composer, conductor, and pianist, Arturo O’Farrill led a new version of A Night in Tunisia with his trumpeter son Adam and the Brooklyn College Jazz Ensemble. Mr. O’Farrill is best known for his work with his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and frequent collaborations including Lin-Manuel Miranda and Ronald K. Brown of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Maria Ann Conelli, the founding Dean of the School of Visual, Media, and Performing Arts at CUNY’s Brooklyn College and Gracie Mansion Conservancy board adviser, enhanced the exhibit’s collection by loaning this short video celebration.

This new version of A Night in Tunisia still stands as a Conservancy highlight.

Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
June 2020

John Quincy Adams Ward Maquettes

The two maquettes by John Quincy Adam Ward, shown here in the Gracie Library, are the Marquis de Lafayette (left) and George Washington (right).

John Quincy Adam Ward (1830-1910) was a New York-based sculptor working in the figurative Neoclassical style during the early years of the American republic. His talent was recognized early, when Henry Kirke Brown (1814-1886) hired Ward in 1849 to assist in his studio. Together this duo won the commission for the 1856 equestrian monument of George Washington located at the southern terrace of Manhattan’s Union Square. They defined what became an American school of public Neoclassical sculpture, the stylistic root of so many of the monuments now removed or under critical scrutiny.

One of Ward’s iconic works is the larger-than-life-size figure of a standing George Washington taking the inaugural 1783 presidential oath of office. The statue was dedicated in the centennial year of 1883 at the Neoclassical building on Wall Street, now called the Federal Hall National Memorial. A handcrafted plaster model or maquette of the final Washington statue has been on display at Gracie Mansion since the year 2002. Such models served as the basis for large-scale studio enlargement and subsequent casting. The maquette is paired with a pendant model done a year later: the 1884 model for a standing memorial of the Marquis de Lafayette. As a young French military officer, Lafayette was dispatched by Louis VIV to assist General Washington during the American Revolution.

During the She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York exhibit, the maquettes by John Quincy Adam Ward sat on the mantel in the Gracie Library.

As summarized in his online biography, “Ward was dedicated to developing an American school of sculpture through his participation in organizations and teaching. He occasionally took on students and assistants, the most notable being Daniel Chester French, Jules Desbois, Francois J. Rey, and Charles Albert Lopez. In 1888-1889, Ward, along with his studio assistant Francois J. Rey and a man named W. Hunt, taught a sculpture class at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Four years later, he was invited by Harvard University to give a series of lectures.”

Today, in the context of a great collective reconsideration of statues in America’s public spaces, Ward is perhaps most newsworthy for two other works: The Freedman in Central Park and The Indian Hunter in several museum collections.

Quoting from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art about the maquette model of The Indian Hunter in their collection: “With his statuette of an Indigenous youth and his dog, Ward answered the call for American subjects modeled by home-based, rather than expatriate, sculptors in a naturalistic, rather than Neoclassical, style. Ward paid close attention to physiognomy, texture, and realistic detail. He later enlarged his model, making refinements based on an 1864 trip to the Dakotas. An over-life-size bronze was dedicated in New York’s Central Park in 1869, becoming the first American sculpture to be erected there.”

The Art Institute of Chicago describes its copy of The Freedman: “A leader among the nation’s second generation of sculptors, John Quincy Adams Ward played a significant role in elevating the medium in the United States, calling for a new realism to address moral concerns. Inspired by Abraham Lincoln’s 1862–63 Emancipation Proclamation, The Freedman reflects not only Ward’s aspiration to create relevant statements on pressing issues of the day but also his abolitionist sentiments. Using antiquity as his inspiration, he depicted a seminude man seated on a tree stump who has just been liberated from the shackles that bound him to slavery. Ward broke artistic convention by showing the former enslaved person as master of his own destiny, not a man reliant on white men for freedom. The vestiges of chains, potent symbols of his bondage, dangle from both wrists, and his muscular body, turned to look over his shoulder, is contained within a formal, triangular composition. The Freedman was modeled from life and is generally considered among the first naturalistic sculptural representations of an African American. Shortly after The Freedman was first exhibited in 1863, art critic James Jackson Jarves effectively summarized the work’s power: We have seen nothing in our sculpture more soul lifting or more comprehensively eloquent. It tells in one word the whole sad story of slavery and the bright story of emancipation.”

Plan to see these maquettes of Washington and Lafayette at Gracie Mansion during one of our free, public tours.

Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
July 2020

The Revolution Comes to Horn’s Hook

A place of thundering cannon and bloodshed? Today the grounds surrounding Gracie Mansion may not evoke a battleground. Yet this part of the East River shoreline, once known as Horn’s Hook, played a small but vivid role in the Revolutionary War.

This drawing by Archibald Robertson, titled “View of the opening of our Batterys at Hell Gate upon the rebel works around Walton’s House on the island of N. York. 8 Sept. 1776,” is included in Robertson’s diaries from 1762-1780.

In 1774—as New Yorkers dumped English tea into the harbor following Bostonians’ example—the merchant-politician Jacob Walton completed Belview, his handsome Georgian manor house overlooking the river at Horn’s Hook, where Gracie Mansion now stands. Walton had earned a reputation as a defender of American liberties against Parliament’s Stamp Act and other oppressive measures.

But by the outbreak of war at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Walton had tempered his support for “radical” agitation, taking a stand in New York’s colonial assembly against adopting and approving the proceedings of the recent Continental Congress. When George Washington’s Continental Army arrived in Manhattan in early 1776 to defend the city against an expected British attack, a New Yorker noted that “Mr. Jacob Walton was ordered to remove and give up his house, which is now occupied by the [American] soldiers.” The fact that Walton had “built an elegant house and greatly and beautifully improved the place,” as another observer put it, could not spare him from the charge of being a “Tory,” an enemy of the revolution.

Leaving Belview must have been traumatic for the Waltons. According to one account, Jacob’s wife, Mary Cruger Walton, “burst into tears, for she was fixed to her heart’s desire.” By evacuating, the family bore witness to the hard fact that the revolution was a civil war, pitting Americans against each other, and Manhattan Island had become hostile territory.

Walton moved his family to friendlier loyalist turf on Long Island. But in July, as a vast British invasion force landed on Staten Island and Washington’s troops girded for battle, patriot authorities sought to quell loyalism by arresting and imprisoning leading Tories. To avoid capture, Walton spent “three weeks in the sultry heat of summer” hiding in the barn of a friendly Quaker farmer.

This drawing by Archibald Robertson, titled “View of the rebel work round Walton’s House, with Hell Gate & the Island [illegible],” is included in Robertson’s diaries from 1762-1780.

Meanwhile, in an effort to keep arriving British warships from moving between the East River and Long Island Sound, Continental troops installed cannons at Horn’s Hook. A succession of rebel troops guarded the house, the cannons, and a surrounding “redoubt” of defensive walls. These soldiers included “minute men” from Westchester County and regiments from Connecticut and Massachusetts, the latter of which may have included free African Americans. Their outpost was known as Thompson’s Battery.

Horn’s Hook would soon feel the full brunt of the war. On August 27, 1776, British troops defeated Washington’s inexperienced soldiers on the farms and wetlands of what are now Prospect Park, Park Slope, Flatbush, and Gowanus. Washington almost lost the war in this Battle of Brooklyn (also called the Battle of Long Island), barely managing to ferry his surviving regiments back across the East River ahead of pursuing redcoats and Hessians. A tense waiting game followed, as Washington deployed his men and boys (many were teenagers) up and down the length of Manhattan in preparation for the British assault that was sure to come.

This painting by Charles Blaskowitz “New York: Hell Gate, 1776” shows the battery built by the Continental Army on Horn’s Hook.

Starting September 8, Thompson’s Battery came under fire from cannons the British placed at Hallett’s Point on the shore of what is now Astoria, Queens. The artillery barrage continued for several days as the British and Americans lobbed cannonballs across the river at each other. At least one American was killed and two wounded during this cannonade, while an English soldier and sailor were killed on the opposite shore. The barrage also wrecked Belview. A contemporary sketch shows flattened rubble and the stumps of two chimneys as the only remnants of the mansion, while a later British map shows an empty footprint where the house used to be.

On September 15, the British assault on Manhattan began in earnest. The night before, as American sentries called “all is well” to each other, sailors on board a Royal Navy ship plying the East River had called back, “We will alter your tune before tomorrow night.” Their threat was not idle. In the morning, under a roaring cannonade from their ships, 4,000 redcoats and Hessians crossed the river from Bushwick Creek and landed at Kip’s Bay (now the foot of East 34th Street), stunning the Americans stationed there. “I made a frog’s leap for the ditch,” recalled 16-year-old private Joseph Plumb Martin, “… and began to consider which part of my carcass was to go first.” The invasion became a rout as rebels—including Horn’s Hook’s defenders– streamed northward up Manhattan. A British officer later reported that his line of skirmishers had advanced up the East River shore, “which is lined with the finest houses. I had the pleasure of taking all these houses together with [a] hostile battery where I found 5 cannons.”

“Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” a despairing General Washington allegedly muttered as his troops fled northward. But the retreat (along with a morale-boosting skirmish at Harlem Heights) enabled the Continental Army to survive to fight another day, and eventually to win the war with French assistance. Meanwhile, the British turned Manhattan into their military headquarters for crushing the rebellion. Having changed hands, Horn’s Hook and other rural estates in northern Manhattan became the British Empire’s defensive perimeter against possible rebel attack. Horn’s Hook was refortified with “an enclosed five-bastioned earthwork, about 250 or 300 feet in diameter,” for the war’s duration.

November 25, 1783 was the day when George Washington and his army marched victoriously back into New York City, bringing the war to a close. It was also the day when the last British forces—along with thousands of loyalist families, including African Americans who had fled rebel masters to gain freedom serving the king—sailed away forever. By then, Jacob and Mary Walton were gone, having died the previous August within five days of each other at a new home in British-occupied Flatbush, possibly the victims of epidemic disease. In 1799, Archibald Gracie—a Scottish immigrant, merchant, and confidant of the revolutionary veteran Alexander Hamilton—built his own mansion at Horn’s Hook on the approximate site of the earlier house. Gracie Mansion houses at least one relic of the fate that befell Belview: A British or rebel cannonball recovered from the site, evoking the turmoil and violence of 1776.

Steven H. Jaffe, Ph.D.

Public Historian, Curator, and Lecturer

Author of New York at War: Four Centuries of Combat, Fear, and Intrigue in Gotham (Basic Books, 2012) and Activist New York: A History of People, Protest, and Politics (NYU Press, 2018).

The George Washington Bridge by Berenice Abbott

The full title of this photo by Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) is “George Washington Bridge 1, January 17, 1936, Riverside Drive and 179th Street.”

Berenice Abbott was a photographer best known for her images of the architecture and urban spaces of 1930s New York City. In this example from last year’s anniversary exhibition She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York, 1919-2019, she photographed what was then a five-year-old engineering marvel. The “worm’s eye view” captured the essence of the bridge’s dynamic connection across space and history.

Suddenly, Manhattan was connected to the United States mainland with the fabled bridge designer Othmar Ammann’s span, loudly heralding as it did the modernist design and function that would upend the five boroughs for better or (in many cases) worse. Connection for some meant violent separation for far too many others.

Born in Springfield, Ohio, Abbott came to New York City to study sculpture and befriended the elite of the avant-garde, including Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. Following a sojourn in Paris, where she became the protégé of the great photographer Eugene Atget, Abbott returned to New York City in 1929 and chose the camera as her medium. Struck by the rapid Depression-era displacement of low-rise structures and communities to skyscrapers and housing projects, she began to record in detail the physical terrain. Abbott continued this series for six years until it was at last made an official subsidized program of the Federal Art Project. With funding secure, Abbott continued, with the assistance of a team, to produce a series of 305 photographs entitled Changing New York. Her distinctive bird’s-eye and (like the George Washington Bridge photo) worm’s-eye perspectives constitute not only a precious historical archive, but also a body of outstanding photographic work.

During the She Persists exhibit at Gracie Mansion, this photo hung to the left of the Yellow Parlor mantle as a pendant to the work at its right: Tar Beach II, the joyous quilt of the beloved artist Faith Ringgold. The narrative image of a family relaxing on the roof on a hot summer’s night was stitched in the shadow of this same bridge, looming above many such neighborhoods with sparkling grandeur—the stuff of childhood dreams.

Abbott openly identified as a lesbian and shared a Greenwich Village apartment for 30 years with her partner, art critic Elizabeth McCausland.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
August 2020

Remembering V-J Day in Times Square, 75 Years Later

This pastel, V-J Day in Times Square by Cecil C. Bell, was part of the New York 1942 exhibit at Gracie Mansion.

While Alfred Eisenstaedt’s picture of a sailor enfolding a nurse in a rapturous kiss may be one of the most famous images in the history of photography, he was not alone in capturing the euphoria that erupted in Times Square on August 14, 1945, V-J (Victory over Japan) Day. Well before 7:03 pm, when the news “TRUMAN ANNOUNCES JAPAN SURRENDERS” flashed along the electric ribbon on the New York Times Building, rumors of World War II’s impending end had brought thousands to what New Yorkers called “the crossroads of the world.” By nightfall, “two million yelling, milling celebrants of peace,” as the Herald Tribune put it, filled the blocks surrounding Times Square.

No doubt artist Cecil Bell was among them, sketching or committing to memory the scene he then depicted in this pastel. From the collection of the Museum of the City of New York (whose first home was in Gracie Mansion in 1923), Bell’s composition was featured in New York 1942, a curated installation of Gracie Mansion’s official rooms in 2017. Displaying artwork and artifacts of the wartime city, that exhibition commemorated the year in which Fiorello La Guardia became the very first mayor to inhabit the mansion.

The striking centerpiece of Bell’s tableau is the 55-foot tall replica of the Statue of Liberty erected at 43rd Street as an advertisement to sell War Bonds. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Times Square became a stage not only for enactments of patriotism, but for all kinds of frenzied performances: Frank Sinatra crooning to screaming bobbysoxers at the Paramount, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie creating bebop a few blocks to the north at the Onyx Club and the Three Deuces, GIs crowding the Stage Door Canteen for meals served by Tallulah Bankhead or Helen Hayes (with tables cleared by Carl Van Vechten and Langston Hughes). The area was a prime cruising ground and pickup zone for young men and women sowing their wild oats as New York became the port of embarkation for over 3 million soldiers heading for the battlefields of North Africa and Europe. All of it was lubricated by spending: the war economy put money into the pockets of war workers and their loved ones, lifting New York and the nation out of the Great Depression.

Bell conveys the New Year’s Eve atmosphere of V-J Day, with revelers blowing horns, waving liquor bottles, shimmying up lamp posts, and using a theater or restaurant marquee as a viewing stand. The presence of a portly policeman suggests the potential for things getting out of control, but his immobility makes clear that the forces of law and order will tolerate a much-needed blowing off of steam after nearly four years of war.

The grim horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought the war to a close are out of sight and out of mind, but Bell reminds his viewer of the war’s somber cost: A uniformed amputee watches from the sidelines as an able-bodied sailor huddles with three women. (Nearly 900,000 New York City residents served in the war, over 16,000 lost their lives in it, and many thousands more were wounded.) The disabled veteran is literally marginalized at the edge of the composition. Meanwhile, beneath the beneficent gaze of Lady Liberty, a puckish boy blasts a horn to egg on the sailor and his friends, as if heralding the next chapter in America’s story– the Baby Boom.

Steven H. Jaffe, Ph.D.
Public Historian, Curator, and Lecturer
Author of New York at War: Four Centuries of Combat, Fear, and Intrigue in Gotham (Basic Books, 2012) and Activist New York: A History of People, Protest, and Politics (NYU Press, 2018).

The Mayors Who Built It: A Tradition of Renovation at Gracie Mansion, 1966-2020

“Every time I smell fresh paint, it reminds me of Gracie Mansion.”

A photo of the Susan E. Wagner Wing of Gracie Mansion, taken during the renovations of the Koch administration.

So reflected Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. (1954-1965) and so captures the constant in Gracie Mansion’s history. The mayors who inhabited Gracie Mansion (and the mayor who did not) repeatedly reinterpreted its space. They inherited a tradition of construction.

Works Progress Administration forces deemed Gracie Mansion complete in May 1942, but the mayors of New York City thought otherwise. With this gusto for renovation, mayoral administrations, quite literally, impressed their memories into the foundations of the residence.

With $800,000.00 raised, Mayor Wagner launched the building of a 50’ x 24’ wing at Gracie Mansion in 1966. This addition sported 18’ ceilings, a dining room, a ballroom, a drawing room, a conference room, and a mayor’s office.

Journalists anticipated that renovations could spark “friction” between mayoral families. Indeed, despite the public cordiality between the Wagner and Lindsay families at the Wagner Wing’s opening ceremony, Mrs. Lindsay apparently referenced the “rundown” condition of Gracie Mansion upon her 1965 move into the estate.

A photo of the Peach Parlor of Gracie Mansion, showing both the decorations from the Bloomberg administration renovation and the artwork from She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York exhibit, organized by the De Blasio administration. On view are two roundels by Betty Blayton-Taylor and an early “soak-stain” technique painting by Helen Frankenthaler.

Although renovations refreshed Gracie Mansion between 1966 and 1977, the projects did not near the scale or attention of the New Deal-funded restorations or the Wagner Wing—until Mayor Edward I. Koch moved to East End Avenue.

Mayor Koch’s renovations to the official mayoral residence captured the spirit of this building: a union of change and consistency. “The porch was put together without any nails,” Mayor Koch celebrated, “same way it was built.” Placing a mezuzah at the mansion’s residence, Mayor Koch personalized this tradition. And he addressed criticism of the renovations’ $5.5 million cost, explaining, “the Gracie Mansion Conservancy was formed to rehabilitate and restore the house to its original elegance through private contributions.”

Although physical changes to the building have not met this scale since the 1980s, subsequent mayors have shaped Gracie Mansion’s built messaging.

“A lot of people want to be mayor—you don’t have to give them extra money as a housing allowance,” remarked Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He continued, “to take one of the great houses in this city away from the public I just think is wrong.” This three-term mayor broke with the tradition upheld by his nine predecessors by remaining in his East 79th Street Beaux-Arts townhouse rather than moving into Gracie Mansion.

Contributing nearly $85,000.00, Mayor Bloomberg launched a renovation project to preserve Gracie Mansion as a symbol of the mayoralty rather than as a functional residence. The Bloomberg administration sought to modify the building’s columns and its balcony—but not its roots in New Deal-funded restorations. “The exterior will remain yellow,” assured journalists.

Upon moving from a Brooklyn rowhouse to “the buttercream-hued mayoral residence on a bluff” in 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his family sought to update the mayoral residence to reflect a spirit of inclusion. In a recent interview, First Lady Chirlane McCray reflected that, while walking through the halls of her new home, she noticed a pattern in its décor and asked, “where are the people of our city and what do we need to do to really be the people’s house?” She answered this question by helping to launch an evolving series of exhibitions and installations for Gracie Mansion’s interior, most recently “Catalyst: Art and Social Justice,” that make space for often-quieted New York stories beyond Gracie’s walls.

As we become increasingly alert to the spaces we inhabit and those we miss during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is encouraging to remember histories of spaces restructured to meet the needs of changing times. Within this city abuzz with construction, Gracie Mansion has and will continue to welcome this call for spatial flexibility.

Emily Gruber
Researcher and Writer for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
August 2020

(Adapted from an essay originally published by Emily Gruber on the “Living New Deal”  website.)

Two Girls on Truck by Helen Levitt…and the Company She Keeps

Two Girls on Truck, ca. 1942-1944, by Helen Levitt. Courtesy of the International Center of Photography.

Ever since the 2017 exhibition New York 1942 throughout the public rooms of Gracie Mansion, marking its 75th anniversary as New York’s official mayoral residence, pioneering women photographers and video artists have abounded on display. Their varied careers revealed across three installations span from the mid-20th century through to the present day.

In New York 1942, the Conservancy showed examples by Berenice Abbott, Helen Levitt, Barbara Morgan, and Lisette Model, each active when the nation climbed out of the Depression and went on to victory in war.

Then, in 2019, to mark the hundredth anniversary of the 19th amendment extending suffrage universally, the exhibit She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York brought to the landmark’s walls Berenice Abbott, Diane Arbus, Perla de Leon, Marcia Bricker (documenting Mierle Laderman Ukeles), Consuelo Kanaga, Lorraine O’Grady, Ana Mendieta, Ruth Orkin, Martha Rosler, Cindy Sherman, Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel.

Now and until September 2021, the CATALYST: Art and Social Justice exhibit adds to this distinguished honor roll Diana Davies, Katherine Helen Fisher, Martine Fougeron, Deborah Freedlander (in this instance for another Ukeles’s performance piece,) Naima Green, and Lorna Simpson. We again welcome de Leon, O’Grady and Rosler to our walls.

Today’s focus is on Helen Levitt and her poignant 1942 print, Two Girls on Truck.

Levitt began capturing urban street scenes in the late 1930s with what the International Center of Photography calls “a specific eye to the unconsciously choreographed play-life of children to document the resourceful nature of children as they create entire worlds from simple materials and their imaginations.” The work informs a moment of innocent yet mysterious grace at a time of national crisis.

The Gracie Mansion Conservancy heralds Levitt and all those accompanying and extending her creative journey in defining a personal truth.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
August 2020

The BLACKOUT Dexterity Game from the New-York Historical Society



On April 27, 1942—just weeks before the La Guardia family became Gracie Mansion’s first mayoral residents—an official order came from Washington to black out all the cities along the Atlantic coast. It was done to impede any prospective attacks from German submarine U-boats. At sundown the next day, New York City went dark. The nighttime risk posed by the silhouetted skylines thus began to fade.

By April 29, the Great White Way and its Times Square semaphore, with its legendary “spectaculars” or neon-lit billboards, were extinguished for the duration of the war.

In fact, this order did not arise all at once, nor was it iron clad across New York’s dense, diverse global crossroads despite strife even more dire than faced in the summer of 2020.

Ever since the Battle of Britain and the deadly blitz of London beginning in July 1940, Mayor La Guardia had shared President Roosevelt’s deep concern over American vulnerability to Nazi bombing raids whether from submarines or attempted trans-Atlantic flights. Together they instilled in the American people a well-placed fear and, in turn, the determination to be free from it: a tautological paradox necessary at a time of war.

Their varied efforts—drills, sirens and the summoning of volunteers—even included children’s games or puzzles like BLACKOUT, a game on view in 2017 for the New York 1942 exhibit. Some of the tiny windows printed on the inside of the glazed box stand out in orange. The goal for the young player was to maneuver tiny steel balls into the indents at these bright, conspicuous spots and “black out” every blaring dot.

Back in the world of adults, partial “dim-outs” proved more reliable as complacency compromised the tiresome totality of full blackouts. (Again, a parallel can be drawn to NY Pause as spawned by the novel coronavirus pandemic of 2020.)

New York author and historian, Richard Goldstein, whose book, Helluva Town: The Story of New York City During World War II was featured in the second season of the Gracie Book Club, summed it up well in an interview a decade ago with The New York Times:

There was no continuous nightly blackout in the wartime city. But blackout drills were held from time to time, mostly in the early years of the war, when there were fears that German bombers might appear overhead.

Under an Army-ordered “dim-out” — less severe than a blackout — the brilliant neon advertising signs in Times Square went dark. Office buildings and apartment houses throughout the city were required to veil windows more than 15 stories high. Stores, restaurants and bars toned down their exterior lighting. Streetlights and traffic signals had their wattage reduced, and automobile headlights were hooded. Night baseball was banned in the war’s early years at the Dodgers’ Ebbets Field and the Giants’ Polo Grounds. (Yankee Stadium did not yet have lights.) The Statue of Liberty’s torch did not glow.

For all the fears of a bombing or U-boat attack, the only wartime devastation visited upon New York came on a Saturday in July 1945 when an unarmed Army bomber, lost in rain and fog on a routine flight, crashed into the Empire State Building between the 78th and 79th floors, killing its 3 crew members and 11 people working at a Catholic war relief agency.”

All this is revealed in a toy. Pay attention!

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
August 2020

The Cathedrals by Florine Stettheimer

Florine Stettheimer’s unique work is hard to characterize. It has been variously described as a “phantasmagoria,” a “fantasia,” “proto-pop,” and just plain quirky. To some, Stettheimer’s somewhat chaotic scenes are reminiscent of Brueghel. Others describe it as modernist, but not the usual kind of abstraction characteristic of “cap M” Modernism. I think the art critic Linda Nochlin got it right when she called it “Rococo Subversive.”

Stettheimer’s Cathedrals series was a wonderful inclusion in Gracie’s 2019 installation, She Persists, A Century of Women Artists in New York, 1919-2019. The four images are light and airy with a color palette that is bright, epicene, and vibrant. They are crammed with detail and, as with all things Rococo, well over the top!

They celebrate America, specifically New York’s preeminence in the worlds of Art, Finance, Entertainment, and Commerce. The figures in the paintings have particular features, but otherwise their bodies are stylized, willowy, and often androgynous.

Cathedrals of Wall Street

In the Cathedrals of Wall Street, the John Quincy Adams Ward statue of George Washington (the plaster maquette of which is on view in the Library at Gracie Mansion), is dominant, bright and gilded, indicating migrant Florine’s regard of her new nation and its first president.

But she is critical in equal measure. On the frieze of the stock exchange are three portrait medallions depicting Bernard Baruch, John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, giants of the financial world. Beneath them is another one of Franklin D. Roosevelt, embodying the conflation of money and politics. Clearly the artist seems to disapprove of this seemingly inevitable interdependence. The Salvation Army figures in the corner can be seen as the conscience against such corruption and the buying of influence.

Cathedrals of Art

A large central arch makes for a stage like setting in each image, hinting at Stettheimer’s love of theater design. In the Cathedrals of Art, the Metropolitan Museum takes center stage with personifications of what was then a new Museum of Modern Art on the left and the Whitney Museum of American Art on the right, waiting their turns in the wings. At the foot of the great staircase of the Met is an infant who represents the birth of the new art. Further up the steps Francis Henry Taylor, the director of the Met at that time, is leading another yet identical baby up to see a portrait by Dutch master Frans Hals, medieval armor, and the antique treasures in the Egyptian galleries. Perhaps Florine is commenting on the perceived greater value of classical art over the new. In the upper left hand corner floats a banner blaring “Picasso” while adjacent is the name “Enirolf” or Florine written backwards…a wry observation no doubt on the disparate treatment of male and female in the art world. Henry McBride, an art critic, holds two paddles, one indicating IN the other OUT. This is Stettheimer’s veiled opinion that critics wield too much influence on who is collected and shown and thus labeled worthy.

Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue

The Cathedrals of Fifth Avenue shows a society wedding with a bishop and monk-like figure in attendance. In the air is written Tiffany, B. Altman and the names of other high-end stores, whose wares no doubt figured in the extravagant wedding. One corner is occupied by a vignette of Lindberg’s Atlantic crossing; the large scale of the wedding in contrast to the minute scale of the Lindberg scene seem to say that the old traditions hold pride of place while the new accomplishments are barely registered.

The fourth in the Cathedrals series is The Cathedrals of Broadway. According to the Metropolitan Museum, which holds all four paintings in its collection:

Cathedrals of Broadway

The Cathedrals of Broadway captures the magical atmosphere of neon-lit theaters, which offered films as well as live performances. As the United States entered the Great Depression, many Americans turned to the world of entertainment to escape reality. Here, New York’s mayor Jimmy Walker throws out the first pitch of the baseball season in a cinema newsreel. An elaborate stage show takes place below the screen, while the names of famous theaters glow around the central proscenium arch. Stettheimer gives little hint of the harsh conditions that confronted many New Yorkers in the 1930s.

When Gracie Mansion reopens, you can see reproductions of The Cathedrals still up alongside the latest vibrant exhibition CATALYST: Art and Social Justice, in place through September 2021.

Mary Reynolds
Docent Guide at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
August 2020

Ben Shahn's sketch of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia

“A truly creative artist is able to see the configuration of the future in present things (and) presses for change.’ —Ben Shahn (1898-1969), Charles Eliot Norton lecture, Harvard 1956

This gouache sketch of Fiorello La Guardia

This gouache sketch of Fiorello La Guardia, ca. 1946 by Ben Shahn, was on loan to Gracie Mansion from the Museum of Modern Art.

The multitalented Ben Shahn—painter, illustrator, graphic artist, photographer and writer—was born in Lithuania and immigrated to this country with his family when he was 8 years old. He developed an original style in which to express his deeply felt progressive social and political views as well as his Jewish roots. A compelling example of his work combining words, artistic expression and political action is a series of posters created for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in support of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reelection in 1944. The bold images and text exhorting citizens to REGISTER and VOTE remain relevant today.

In this sketch, which was part of the New York 1942 exhibit at Gracie Mansion, Ben Shahn was able to capture the pugnacious character of Fiorello La Guardia, the popular mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945. This work, typical of the artist’s graphic focus in the 1940s, embodies an awareness of an individual leader and issues of the day. Perhaps this portrait was an encomium to La Guardia who had ended three terms as mayor the year before. The “Little Flower,” the mayor’s nickname based on the translation of his last name from Italian to English, crossed party lines to root out the corrupt patronage system of Tammany Hall, implement New Deal social and welfare policies, support immigrant and ethnic groups, and generally restore faith in the life and governance of the City.

There is no apparent record of interaction between the artist and his subject. However, the two men shared many social and political ideas and were actively involved in related causes. The artist must have been aware of La Guardia’s fiery speeches and strong anti-fascism. Both men were outspoken supporters of FDR’s New Deal. Shahn, like many artists during the Depression, found employment under the New Deal in the Federal Works Projects Administration Arts Program. In 1939, he moved from New York to Jersey Homesteads (now called Roosevelt), where he completed a 45 foot mural commissioned by the Farm Security Administration for the local school depicting the history of the town beginning with its residents’ arrival at Ellis Island. When federal funding for the arts ended due to World War II, Mayor La Guardia came to the rescue and funded the program in New York City for another year. Coincidentally, both men worked for the Office of War Information, but in different divisions. Shahn was briefly involved in the graphics division before it dissolved and La Guardia would broadcast to Italy via radio in Italian to ensure that the country was aware of the activities of the Allied forces.

Finally, Shahn must have admired La Guardia’s stalwart support of the arts. He wrote, “I have always believed that the character of a society is largely shaped and unified by its creative works.” La Guardia had established the High School of Music and Art, which now bears his name, and supported the conversion of the Shriner’s Mecca Temple, which had been scheduled for demolition, into the New York City Center, a venue for the performing arts.

Mina Rieur Weiner
Docent, researcher, and writer for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
August 2020

A Biography of Carl Schurz

drawing of Carl Schurz

This drawing of Carl Schurz by A.J. Jennell is part of the collection of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy. It was on display during the New Yorkers at Work anThis drawing of Carl Schurz by A.J. Jennell is part of the collection of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy. It was on display during the New Yorkers at Work and Play exhibit in 2018.d Play exhibit in 2018.

Revolutionary, reactionary, abolitionist, racist, appeaser, politician, journalist, environmental pioneer: the biography of Carl Schurz is a complex one. Rarely is history black and white but a broad array of gray. Schurz proves a vivid case in point.

Born in 1826 in the Kingdom of Prussia just outside Cologne, Schurz fled his native county in 1848 as a failed insurrectionist in the anti-Imperial student brotherhood called the Deutsche Burschenschaft. He arrived on American shores as an immigrant “forty-eighter,” settled in Wisconsin (like so many fellow Germans), and leapt into the turgid politics of his new adopted nation. Led by anti-slavery fervor, he joined the nascent Republican Party and entered the Civil War fourteen years later as a general in the Union Army.

Following the war and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, new President Andrew Johnson appointed now-retired General Schurz to tour the devastated South and deliver a policy blueprint for its future political stakes. In it, Schurz opposed reunification of the old Confederacy but his recommendation failed to please Johnson, who opted instead to let southern states rejoin in the context of Reconstruction.

The sign at one of the entrances to Carl Schurz Park.

The sign at one of the entrances to Carl Schurz Park.

When war-hero Ulysses S. Grant became the next resident of the White House in 1869 and endeavored to accord the freed African Americans the full citizenship rights the Civil War promised, Schurz’s own record of racism favoring sustained segregation (and even the possible exiling of all black Americans to Africa), led to his stark break from the Lincoln Republicans holding national power.

That same year Schurz became a U.S. Senator from the young state of Missouri, adding to the complex biography of ambition and social contradictions. The balance of his Missouri statehood is summarized on the worthwhile website Historic Missourians:

By 1870, Schurz was publicly attacking the Ulysses S. Grant administration and its power base in Congress, the Radical Republicans, over a high level of government corruption and disagreements concerning plans for Reconstruction. Schurz banded together with a like-minded faction called the Liberal Republicans, which opposed the Radical Republicans. The Liberal Republicans helped get B. Gratz Brown elected governor of Missouri, but they fell apart in Missouri and across the nation after failing to successfully oppose Grant’s reelection bid in 19872.

Politically weakened after his faction’s loss, Schurz lost his Senate reelection bid in 1875. He supported Rutherford B. Hayes’s election run in 1876…and was rewarded with the post of U.S. Secretary of the Interior while Hayes was president. Schurz began reforming corruption within the Department of the Interior, protected natural resources, and tried to change the policy toward Native Americans away from segregation on reservations and toward assimilation into “mainstream” society. After Hayes’s term ended in 1881, Schurz moved to New York and never held another government position.

At last away from politics, Schurz lived in New York City for the balance of his life, working in journalism. He climbed its ranks rapidly, including service as editor at the New York Evening Post, founded in 1801 on the porch of Gracie Mansion by its namesake builder, Archibald Gracie, and his like-minded neighbor, Alexander Hamilton.

Schurz’s writing and personal myth-building, including the bold credential of Civil War general, made him a hero to New York’s vibrant German-American immigrant community centered by then on Manhattan’s Upper East side in a neighborhood named Yorkville. As a result, in 1910, the aldermen in charge named a new park (carved from the old Gracie farm when the city took it over for tax delinquency a decade before), in honor of the recently deceased local legend; hence today’s Carl Schurz Park. It is an animated jewel on the long necklace of public green space open to all and worth a look when visiting the Gracie Mansion.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
September 2020

Carl Schurz Park: Surrounding Gracie Mansion

passerbys in Carl Schurz Park

All photos © Copyright New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.

The earliest inhabitants of the land now called Carl Schurz Park were the many generations of the Lenape Tribe who lived in the Lenapehoking territory. The land was valued for its strategic location overlooking turbulent waters at this bend in today’s East River. It is, in fact, a tidal strait—a gateway to the east to what was later known as New England, and well beyond via vast waters, labeled Long Island Sound, by the new land-grabbing immigrants.

views of Gracie through the trees of the park

View of Gracie through the trees of the park

The first known European occupier of the land was Dutchman Sybout Claessen, who was granted the property in 1646 by the Dutch West India Company. Jacob Walton, a subsequent owner and British loyalist, built a house on the site in 1770. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army seized the Tory household to build a fort guarding the strategic shipping passage known as Hell Gate. After a British attack on September 8, 1776, the structures on the land were destroyed and the Americans were forced to retreat from the fort. The British retained the area until the end of the war in 1783.

Inner area of Carl Schurz Park

All photos © Copyright New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.

In 1799, a prosperous New York merchant named Archibald Gracie purchased an L-shaped parcel of 20+ acres and built a country house on the ruins there. Mr. Gracie’s lawns and orchards rolled down to the riverfront with a stone embankment, dock with bathing house, and a sturdy picket fence. Bankruptcy forced Gracie to sell his house to Joseph Foulke in 1823. Foulke then subdivided the land, selling the mansion and some of the land to Noah Wheaton in 1857.

View of Gracie through the trees of the park

View of Gracie through the trees of the park

In 1896, the City of New York seized the estate from Wheaton due to non-payment of taxes, incorporating its grounds into the East River Park. This green space was renamed in 1910 for the German-American statesman Carl Schurz. The historic Gracie house was the first home of the Museum of the City of New York from 1924 to 1932. Gracie Mansion has served as the official residence of New York’s mayors since Fiorello La Guardia moved there in 1942.

trees in Carl Schurz Park

All photos © Copyright New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.

Illustrious landscape architects Calvert Vaux and Samuel Parsons completed a new landscape design for the park in 1902. Maud Sargent re-designed the park in 1939 when the East River Drive underpass, now Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive, was under construction. Sargent’s functional design used strategically placed boulders, plantings, plazas, and walkways to obscure the new highway below. The park’s waterfront promenade, built over the FDR Drive’s roof deck, was named after City College president and New York State Commissioner of Education John H. Finley. In 1975, Charles Andrew Hafner’s sculpture of Peter Pan, originally created in 1928 for the old Paramount Theater’s lobby, was installed in one of the park’s cloistered gardens.

Recent improvements include the rebuilding of stairs, the complete restoration of the playground, and the opening of “Carl’s Dog Run.“ These and other projects, including the planting of flowers, have been accomplished through a partnership between NYC Parks and the Carl Schurz Park Conservancy, which has demonstrated the community’s commitment to restoring, maintaining, and preserving this park since 1974.

Visitors to Gracie Mansion, neighbors, and school children should set aside time across all four seasons to revel in this urban oasis.

Adapted from the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation website for Carl Schurz Park by

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
September 2020

Puerto Rico Stands Proud in the Art Exhibits at Gracie Mansion

The Flag of Puerto Rico

This proud territorial flag is an emblem of freedom marking Puerto Rico’s distinct status as a state without statehood; Congressionally absent commonwealth; allied and yet distinct.

In 1952, Governor Luis Muñoz Marin led the way for the formal adoption of this flag — originally designed 60 years before in 1892 —and proclaimed it the official flag of Puerto Rico with the largo aliento label, El Reglamento sobre el Uso en Puerto Rico de la Bandera Del Estato Libre Asociado de Puerto; Reglamento Núm 5282.

The colors used in the two versions shifted as their meanings underwent change. The white bars stood for the republican form of government and the dark blue (switched from the earlier, more celestial blue), echoed that of the United States flag to appear distanced from the previous blue’s revolutionary roots.

Among the many occasions in which the Puerto Rican flag has been used as a symbol of pride was when the “flag arrived in South Korea during the long Korean War. On August 13, 1952, while enemy forces on Hill 346 were attacking the men of Puerto Rico’s 65th Infantry Regiment, the regiment unfurled it for the first time in history in a foreign combat zone.”

The Commanding Officer, Colonel Juan César Cordero Dávila, pronounced in his native language at the scene (quoted in translation,) “How beautiful is our flag, how it looks next to the stars and the stripes! Let the communists (aka North Korean enemies) on the other side of the Yokkok River see it and listen to me those who understand Spanish if these words reach your trenches.”

Puerto Ricans in New York during WWII

Brother (Hermano), Spanish Harlem by John Albok, was part of our exhibit New York 1942, a curated installation of objects depicting the evolving landscape of New York City and the profound cultural and economic forces that were transforming the five boroughs into a crossroads of progressive change.

In 2017, as Gracie Mansion marked its 75th anniversary as the mayoral residence with the exhibition, New York 1942, two works on view joyously summoned the second great migration of Puerto Ricans amidst global warfare. Spanish Harlem grew from the paradoxical collision of bloodshed and opportunity.

Like most places, the Great Depression impacted the mainland-reliant Puerto Rican economy. As unemployment spread and food shortages loomed, New York became a beacon of hope. The Great Migration of Puerto Ricans to New York unfolded across the 20th century due above all to the prospect of jobs. As a result, barrio neighborhoods took root in Brooklyn and the Bronx, as well as East Harlem, featuring such vital customs as bodega stores and refreshing shaved ice piraguas.

Sister (Hermana), Spanish Harlem by John Albok, was part of was part of our exhibit New York 1942.

The artist John Albok was a Hungarian immigrant working as a tailor and living with his family at Madison and 96th Street, where he taught himself photography. The Upper East Side boundaries of Spanish Harlem or El Barrio were close by as one of the places where he distinguished himself as a keen chronicler of community life. He wandered these nearby streets in search of his muse. These photographs are best known for their intimate yet scrupulous record of their subjects so clearly at ease even at this moment of encounter.

The advent of War further opened the door of opportunity, especially with the mass mobilization of white Americans in the still segregated armed forces. As summarized by the Latin Education Service Network, ”Puerto Ricans, both male and female, found themselves employed in factories and ship docks, producing both domestic and warfare goods. The new migrants gained the knowledge and working skills which in the future would serve them well.” The Brooklyn Navy Yard was one such career-building cradle.



Twenty-four flags of Puerto Rico Splayed Across Freedom Rider (Homage to Felícitas Méndez) and “Porto Rican” Cotton Picker by Miguel Luciano. Both pieces are part of CATALYST: Art and Social Justice, an exhibition of works by New York Artists and Activists since 1960, celebrating the power of art to spark change and spur progress.

Due to the historic pandemic, the annual heritage party under Gracie’s river-fronting tent and the 2020 Puerto Rican Day Parade went without in-person celebration. Both will return next year and, in the intervening time, the underlying pride had a place here at Gracie Mansion, thanks to artists from Puerto Rico willing to share examples of their work. A salute accordingly to Albok and our friend today: Miguel Luciano!



Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
September 2020

Note: The quotes describing the Puerto Rican flag in Korea are from Wikipedia:

Northern Mocking Birds on the Lawn of Gracie Mansion

A view of the front garden at Gracie Mansion, home to Northern Mockingbirds.

A view of the front garden at Gracie Mansion, home to Northern Mockingbirds.

As the sounds of nature fade for the season and the rumbling of the city builds back up, one reliably welcome aural cue stays constant throughout: the songs of the resident Northern Mockingbirds heard emphatically whether day or after dark.

“Resident” fits as these mockingbirds stay put year-round with no migrating leave, making them true New Yorkers through and through.

And not only that attribute fits! Mockingbirds have an insatiable curiosity and braveness of heart that leads them to new places to roost and nest along with any bird-ready cuisine involving seeds, fruits, and insects—whatever comes available to easily peck. They are omnivorous, like their human neighbors, competing together for the same chance to thrive.

The National Audubon Society ( says it best about the steady, widespread species: One that has adapted readily to human development across cities and suburbs alike—wherever the ubiquitous American lawn or public parks. The male cries out perched atop structures and poles where, like their female companions, their performance involves flying up and then fluttering down.

A view the beautiful greenery in Carl Schurz Park

A view the beautiful greenery in Carl Schurz Park, courtesy of the NYC Parks Department.

Mockingbirds are but one of nearly 300 bird species who call the City home, whether common or rare, resident or just passing through once or twice per year. That is nearly a third of those sharing America from the Aleutians of Alaska to the Keys of Florida.

Carl Schurz Park (, the green space around Gracie Mansion, like the landmark itself, is the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, which for 150 years since 1870 has been the steward of more than 30,000 acres of parks, millions of street trees, golf courses, play grounds and sports fields, 1,200 monuments, and 23 historic homes. Gracie Mansion is but one among fine company of the agency’s Historic House Trust. Their website tells so much more while opens the giant picture of the people’s lands that link them with nature and its vast human mark.

When visitors return, the park nearby and the lawns which surround are part of the discovery that awaits the reopening. Rest assured then, that Gracie’s resident mockingbirds will herald that day.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
October 2020


The Ashcan School Shown at Gracie Mansion: 2015-2019

“Art cannot be separated from life. It is the expression of the greatest need of which life is capable, and we value art not because of the skilled product, but because of its revelation of a life’s experience.”

“Paint what you feel. Paint what you see. Paint what is real to you.” — from The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

Painting of V.J. Day in Times Square

Cecil Bell’s painting V.J Day in Times Square was part of our exhibit New York 1942.

The exhibit New York 1942 in 2017 marked the 75th anniversary of Gracie Mansion’s role as the official residence of New York’s mayors. The La Guardia family arrived in May of that tumultuous year due to demands of security and logistics at a time of global war and the fear of attack. Reflecting this historic context across the era, the art shown in the exhibit included two paintings by Staten Islander Cecil Bell: V.J Day in Times Square and Shine-Staten Island Ferry.

Among the artworks on view as part of the next show, New Yorkers at Work and Play in 2018, were:  Italian Block Party by Howard Thain, Hi Ho Chinese Theater by Stafford Mantle Northcote, and Homeless Family by Barney Tobey.

The following year, on the centennial of congressional passage of the 19th amendment granting women the vote, there were three canvasses by the great, long-lived, Upper West Side artist Theresa Bernstein: Flowers, Columbus Circle Movie Theater, and Bryant Park. The Ethel Myers sculpture, A Lady, dated from the the very anniversary of 1919. This beautiful exhibit, curated by Jessica Bell Brown, was called She Persists: A Century of Women artists in New York 1919-2019.  

inside the Hi Ho Chinese Theater

Hi Ho Chinese Theater by Stafford Mantle Northcote was part of our New Yorkers at Work and Play exhibit.

The catalogs for the three exhibits defined each of the nine pieces as “Ashcan” works, influenced by the Ashcan School. In fact, no such school existed. The name was inspired instead by a 1915 drawing by George Bellows entitled “Disappointments of the Ash Can.” The term was popularized by a 1934 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art curated by  Holger Cahill and the Museum’s founding director Alfred H. Barr, Jr., who used the epithet to identify a group of early 20th-century American artists choosing to depict New York City’s vitality and variety through aspects of lower class life. The artists aimed to capture the “truth’ of such daily lives as witnessed in the streets. These were radical concepts at the time and at odds with the museum elite’s prevailing view of “art for art’s sake.”

painted flowers framed on a blue wall

Flowers by Theresa Bernstein was part of our exhibit She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York.

The last few decades of the 19th-century—called “The Gilded Age” by Mark Twain—witnessed enormous growth of business and industry in this country and the accumulation of great private fortunes. These newly wealthy looked to Europe for culture and fashion. The paintings they purchased were primarily classical in the established traditions of portraiture, still life, and landscape. This approach continued to be in vogue during the first decades of the century to come. Throughout the country, art galleries and collectors wanted pieces focused on “official” European styles. Even leading critics favored artists shown by such traditional constrictive academies as the National Academy of Design and the Society of American Artists.

The first of the “Ashcan” artists were not organized as some official group yet a number shared a bond of influence from painter Robert Henri, a charismatic teacher who criticized the academy and juried shows challenging the status quo. Henri authored The Art Spirit, in which he persuasively promoted his new definition of “art for lifes sake.” His initial circle emerged in Philadelphia and New York, featuring John Sloan, William Glackens, George Luks, and Everett Shinn. With the exception of Henri, all  had been newspaper illustrators grown used to depicting scenes from everyday life. This group of followers expanded to include George Bellows, Jerome Myers, and the artists shown at Gracie Mansion in our recent exhibits.

Even though their dark palettes recalled earlier European masters like Manet, Hals, and Goya, these urban realists stood apart from the establishment. They chose to focus their paintings on the sometimes stark realities of a bustling city—denizens of poorer neighborhoods, their life in the streets, alleys and rooftops, their favorite bars, clubs, sporting events, and their frequent status as immigrants challenged by poverty. The Ashcan artists were not interested in fomenting social change, but in simply recording urbanism, including its negative effects. They subsequently influenced the Social Realist movement that developed in the 1930s.

In sum, these artists did not paint ash cans per se, but the city streets even when crowded and dirty and overflowing with the ashes of strife.

The greatest contribution of this group is how for one hundred years, and counting, they made the art world consider all facets of contemporary American urban life as worthy subjects.

To learn more about these works and all that the others from our art exhibits, visit and follow @graciemansionconservancy on Instagram. We hope to be able to welcome you back to Gracie Mansion soon, when our free public tour program can re-start.




Mina Rieur Weiner
Writer, Researcher and Docent Guide at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
October 2020




She Persists : Launched in the Milestone Centennial of 2019

Timeline of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the United States of America

1787: The newly adopted Constitution of the nascent United States of America forged as a republic consisting of the 13 original colony states did not specify which Americans could vote but yielded that authority to the individual states, none of whom decided to extend suffrage to women.

August 1848: The first women’s rights convention is held in Seneca Falls, New York. After two days of discussion and debate, 68 women and 32 men sign a Declaration of Sentiments, which outlines grievances and sets the agenda for the women’s rights movement. A set of 12 resolutions is adopted calling for equal treatment of women and men under the law and voting rights for women.

1850: The first National Women’s Rights Convention takes place in Worcester, Mass., attracting more than 1,000 participants. National conventions are held yearly (except for 1857), through 1860.

1868: Ratification of the 14th amendment declaring “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside” and that right may not be “denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States”

1869: A split among the suffragist movement when a shared strategic goal diverges in two tactical paths. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton form the National Woman Suffrage Association. Their goal was to achieve voting rights for women by means of a Congressional amendment to the Constitution. Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and others form the American Woman Suffrage Association, which focuses exclusively on gaining voting right through the individual state constitutions.

1870: Congress ratifies the 15th amendment: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

1872: Susan B. Anthony arrested for voting for Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential election.

1878: The Women’s Suffrage Amendment is first introduced to congress.

1890: The National Women Suffrage Association and the American Women Suffrage Association merge to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). As the movement’s mainstream organization, NAWSA wages state-by-state campaigns to obtain voting rights for women.

1893: Colorado is the first state to adopt an amendment granting women the right to vote.

1896: The National Association of Colored Women is formed, bringing together more than 100 black women’s clubs. Leaders in this club movement include Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Mary Church Terrell, and Anna Julia Cooper.

1913: Alice Paul and Lucy Burns form the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage. Their focus is lobbying for a constitutional amendment to secure the right to vote for women. The group is later renamed the National Women’s Party. Members picket the White House and practice other forms of civil disobedience.

1916: Alice Paul and her colleagues form the National Woman’s Party (NWP) and begin introducing some of the methods used by the suffrage movement in Britain. Tactics included demonstrations, parades, mass meetings & picketing the White House over the refusal of President Woodrow Wilson and other incumbent Democrats to actively support the Suffrage Amendment.

1917: In July picketers, including Paul, are arrested on charges of “obstructing traffic.” Paul and others are convicted and incarcerated at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. While imprisoned, Alice Paul begins a hunger strike.

1918: In January, after much bad press about the treatment of Alice Paul and the imprisoned women, President Wilson announces that women’s suffrage was urgently needed as a “war measure.”

1918: The women of New York State could vote at last following the previous year’s amendment to the State’s Constitution granting the vote to resident women citizens.

1919: The federal woman suffrage amendment, originally written by Susan B. Anthony and introduced in Congress in 1878, is passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate. It is then sent to the states for ratification.

August 26, 1920: The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote, is finally signed into law.

ON ELECTION DAY OF NOVEMBER 2, 1920 women voted on the presidential ticket for the very first time: At long last, the right to weigh in where it counts most! The winners were Warren G. Harding of Ohio with VP Calvin Coolidge of Vermont (who also won in 1924 as the incumbent after Harding’s sudden death just one year before).

The best way to celebrate one hundred years and one day later is to go vote and do so with a well-earned backward salute!

Adapted from The Center for American Women and Politics by
Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
October 2020

Reflections on Supporting the Gracie Mansion Conservancy’s Curriculum Updates

The 1802 Libers of Conveyance that manumitted the Short family was the subject of research by Emily Gruber and Kathleen Hulser, who were updating the curriculum guide for Gracie Mansion Conservancy.

It was an honor to support public historian Kathleen Hulser as she updated the Gracie Mansion Conservancy’s curriculum. While providing research support, I assisted in the process of retrieving the record of the manumission of Sarah, Abram, and Charles Short, individuals whom Archibald Gracie (the current mayoral residence’s original owner) once held as enslaved people. I liaised between Ms. Hulser, who identified the location of this record within the Libers of Conveyance, and representatives from the New York City Department of Records. I felt encouraged that the original copy of the manumission record offered a chance for Ms. Hulser and the Gracie Mansion Conservancy to clarify this history for students and visitors to the People’s House. The Gracie Mansion Conservancy’s curriculum urges us to understand education as anything but static, as a crucially evolving sphere that welcomes new primary sources—and those sources that beckon us to a citation that forges the path to an original record.

Upon reading the Libers of Conveyance’s entry for the Short family, I noticed the distinctions between the formatting of this 1802 document and that of the 1941 article that provided its citation. The twentieth-century article presents a reader with a chart with the categories of “owner,” “slave,” “date of instrument,” and “place of record and remarks.” Within these four columns, a reader can scan horizontally and quickly learn, for example, that Charles Short was the son of Sarah Short and her husband, Abram Short.

Visual clarity, however, did not seem to guide the organization of the original document. Rather than columns, the original record took the form of a paragraph with twelve lines of script; one can discern lines beneath the script, perhaps sketched across the page to ensure elegant presentation and legibility. A few crucial words and phrases are enlarged, namely “recorded,” “I have manumitted” (spelled with one “t” in the original), and “I hereby manumit.”  While this information is central to the record, the proper names and the corresponding dates do not receive this visual prominence. These formatting details rooted my question of whether or not these choices were premeditated. Did Archibald Gracie request that his name and/or the names of the Short family members assume a smaller font? Did he seek to emphasize his participation in the act of manumission over the identities of those involved in this record? Was this simply the stylistic tradition of the early nineteenth century?

I am grateful to have been able to contribute to Ms. Hulser’s research into this record and the contribution of Sarah, Abram, and Charles Short to the history of Gracie Mansion. And I invite you to join me in learning to read all sources for the clues that they might share. I am ready to search and to rethink—and I hope you are too.


Emily Gruber
Writer, Researcher, and Docent for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
October 2020


The Gracie Dining Room

The dining room in Gracie Mansion charms us because it is in the oldest part of the house and boasts the sumptuous decoration of its time, including the antique scenic Zuber wallpaper, the pale green satin draperies and the French Empire bronze chandelier, which New York designer Jamie Drake installed in 2002.

Gracie Mansion visitors moving through the dining room.

Another fine period piece in the room is a donation from a descendant of Archibald Gracie, the merchant who built the house in 1799. It’s a fine antique rosewood Empire buffet, which has been attributed to Duncan Phyfe, one of America’s early leading cabinetmakers.

I also appreciate the room’s rueful decorating tales.

Gracie Mansion visitors moving through the dining room.

In the early 1980s with the advent of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy, then-Mayor Ed Koch asked Albert Hadley and Mark Hampton (two of the most popular and successful New York decorators of that decade), to volunteer oversight of a historically-resonant redecoration of the house.

While Hadley took on the dining room, most of his plans were never realized.

After choosing the 1830 Zuber wallpaper, he found a green moiré patterned carpet to complement it. The day the installers arrived, the board of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy instructed them to replace Hadley’s choice with a striped carpet that had been ordered for a different room. Hadley was furious.

Corner of Gracie Mansion dining room that focuses on Zuber wallpaper. Young couple move through a park. He resigned, saying the “ladies” could “play house” as they wished.

About a decade later, First Lady Donna Hanover Guiliani commissioned a new patterned rug that remains in the dining room today. When the great designer, Jamie Drake, reinvigorated the public interiors for Mayor Bloomberg, he redesigned many of the history-informed carpets found throughout but left Ms. Hanover’s dining room choice in place as a nod to her discernment.

In the tumultuous year of 2020, Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, First Lady Chirlane McCray, proudly display contemporary art in the rest of the house. It is an installation entitled CATALYST: Art and Social Justice shown here on this web site while counting down to reopen The People’s House as soon as they can!

I applaud their use of art to enliven a historic house; meanwhile, the dining room is a gem that works perfectly all by itself with period décor.

Wendy Moonan
Author and journalist
From her recent book from Rizzoli,
New York Splendor: The City’s Most Memorable Rooms
November 2020

La Guardia and Einstein at the Theater

Albert Einstein and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia with the Playwright and Cast from The Brothers Ashkenazy. Photo by an unknown artist.

Albert Einstein and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia with the Playwright and Cast from The Brothers Ashkenazy. Photo by an unknown artist.

This small anonymous 1937 photo, taken by what today we’d call a paparazzo, shows Mayor Fiorello La Guardia (nicknamed “The Little Flower” after a translation of his first name), with the great physicist and scholar, Albert Einstein. They are exiting together a hit play three years after Einstein emigrated from fascist Berlin at the time, when La Guardia served in his first of three terms. Their shared short statures distinguish them in the crowd, book-ending the author-star of the theatrical event.

The play, entitled The Brothers Ashkenazy, was adopted from a novel by the Polish-American author, Israel Joshua Singer (brother of the Nobel Prize-winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer), who was born in 1893 in Bilgoraj, Poland. There he received a traditional Jewish education before his family moved to Warsaw, where he joined the Yiddish avant-garde movement, Di Khalyastre, and contributed to their journals. When his writing caught the attention of Abraham Cahan, the editor of Forverts, Singer became a correspondent, traveling extensively on behalf of the paper before arriving in the shelter of New York City as The Holocaust took hold.

Although popular in readership and sales, many others experienced Singer’s work on stage with a theatrical adaptation, whose audience drew the mayor and the great theoretical physicist who changed the world.

These were the years of worldwide foreboding leading up to World War II with La Guardia’s inevitable (if much resisted), arrival as the first official resident of Gracie Mansion in 1942, while the world burned and domestic civil defense on the part of the mayor was strong in example-setting demand.

As this tumultuous year in America’s history draws to a close with promise and hope for the future, we appreciate anew how leaders like these saved the world, even as they went about their daily lives as lovers of the arts like their fellow New Yorkers.

It’s with just such optimistic spirt that the Conservancy extends its collective good wishes to all for a truly rapturous 2021! We hope that we can welcome you back for an overdue visit to the dynamic People’s House as it counts down to receiving new residents on January 1, 2022.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director
Gracie Mansion Conservancy
December 2020


ART IS… by Lorraine O’Grady

“The concept was that, as people were being framed, they were being acknowledged as art in themselves.” — Lorraine O’Grady

Lorraine O’Grady is a performance and conceptual artist, art critic, and teacher of art and literature. Two decades after graduating from Wellesley College in 1955, and having pursued and succeeded at other careers, she burst upon the performance art stage in the guise of Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, a fictional beauty queen who crashed art openings to protest the absence of black and women artists in their collections.

fifteen African-American and Latino performers dressed in white and holding empty gold picture frames

ART IS… (Troupe Front), 1983
Lorraine O’Grady (1934-)
Chromogenic Digital Print
Courtesy of Alexander Gray Associates, New York. © Lorraine O’Grady/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

When she was told that avant garde art had nothing to do with the black community, O’Grady answered the challenge by creating a float to participate in the September 1983 African American Day Parade in Harlem. In addition to Mlle Bourgeoise Noire, the float carried fifteen African-American and Latino performers dressed in white and holding empty gold picture frames. They eventually descended from the float, joined the one million New Yorkers lining the route, and invited them to frame themselves as living portraits. Photographs documenting the event show the enthusiastic and joyful response of adults and children who understood that they were participating with the artist in celebrating themselves and their community.

two sets of delightfully happy children posing within gold frames

ART IS… (Girlfriends Times Two), 1983
Lorraine O’Grady (1934-)
Chromogenic Digital Print
Courtesy of The Studio Museum in Harlem
Bequest of Peggy Cooper Cafritz (1947-2018), Washington, D.C. Collector, Educator, and Activist

Two photographs of ART IS… were on view in the exhibition She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York (2019-2020) at Gracie MansionTroupe Front records the frame-carrying men and women dancing down Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard.  Girlfriends Times Two depicts two sets of delightfully happy children posing within gold frames. Troupe Front remains on view in the current Gracie Mansion installation Catalyst: Art and Social Justice.

Almost forty years after ART IS… occurred, President-elect Biden’s campaign asked Lorraine O’Grady for permission to build on her concept in a post-election video celebrating American community and diversity. Just under two minutes long, it joyously illustrates the call by President-elect Biden for renewed national unity. Accompanied by Ray Charles’s brilliant and poignant interpretation of America the Beautiful, images of smiling Americans, young and old, from across the country, representing various ethnic groups and walks of life at home, work, and play, are unified by being part of the same artistic endeavor: living portraits captured in gold frames.

In an interview about the video, Lorraine O’Grady said, “The translation of my ideas is almost direct… Biden is saying the same thing to the country that I was saying to the art world… We are a very large and diverse community and we all need to be included.”

When we can safely re-start our free, public tour program, please join us at Gracie Mansion to see ART IS… (Troupe Front) by Lorraine O’Grady along with the rest of the Catalyst: Art and Social Justice exhibit.

Mina Rieur Weiner
Writer, researcher, and docent at Gracie Mansion Conservancy
December 2020

All quotes are from an article in the New York Times (November 9, 2020): Biden Video Uses Artists Vision to Project a Unified Country. For the full article, click Biden Unity Video Uses Artists Vision
To see the video created by the Biden campaign, click Presidency for All Americans

A Day Without Art at Gracie Mansion

Miguel Luciano's Freedom Rider under a shroud for the 2020 Day Without Art.

Freedom Rider (Homage to Felícitas Méndez), 2011, by Miguel Luciano under a shroud for the 2020 Day Without Art

Two years after the iconic call-to-action by the Silence=Death Project against the AIDS pandemic and two years before Visual AIDS created the Red Ribbon pin, the first Day Without Art was launched by Visual AIDS in 1989. This coincided with the World Health Organization’s second annual World AIDS Day on December 1 of that deadly year—the date on the calendar where it still unfolds today.

Devra Freelander's Late Capitalist Relic 01 under a shroud for the 2020 Day Without Art

Late Capitalist Relic 01, 2018, by Devra Freelander under a shroud for the 2020 Day Without Art

In 2020, the Gracie Mansion Conservancy reminds its visitors of that vital anniversary as part of its special art exhibition, CATALYST: Art and Social Justice, remaining on view for another year. The presence of an early SILENCE=DEATH poster and prototype Red Ribbon underscore the Day’s significance, along with a 24-hour shrouding of Miguel Luciano’s stirring work, Freedom Rider (Homage to Felícitas Méndez) and the nearby Late Capitalist Relic 01 by Devra Freelander. The sanguineous fabric of their cloaks is a reflection of sobriety and mourning, yet a transfusion of hope as looking ahead on America’s course. The present pandemic amplifies its activist coding as empowered anew.

The story of the genesis of the Day Without Art starts thirty-one years ago with a team of Visual AIDS activists and artists reaching out to curators, writers, and art professionals around the globe seeking a unified, attention-grabbing call-for-action that could “celebrate the lives and achievements of lost colleagues and friends; encourage caring for all people with AIDS; educating diverse publics about HIV infection; and finding a cure.”

More than 800 groups and locations responded in the U.S. alone by shrouding artworks and replacing them with information about HIV and safer sex, locking their doors or dimming their lights, and producing exhibitions, programs, readings, memorials, rituals, and performances.

This ongoing communion of collective performance art continues today, as the Conservancy demonstrates with gratitude and grace.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director
Gracie Mansion Conservancy
December 2020

George Washington by John Quincy Adams Ward

“The occasion which brings us together”: [1]

Remembering Inauguration Day 1789 in the City of New York and Marking the 59th Inauguration of a President of the United States of America

With an extended right hand and a kiss on the Bible, George Washington became the first president of the United States to take the presidential oath of office in New York City.

This pose might be familiar to readers whom the Gracie Mansion Conservancy welcomed during its weekly, pre-pandemic tours. John Quincy Adams Ward captured Washington’s Inauguration Day stance in plaster, sculpting a maquette that sits atop a table in Gracie Mansion’s Library.

Maquettes of George Washington and Maquis de Lafayette

The maquette for the statue of George Washington by John Quincy Adams Ward (right) sits on a table in Gracie Mansion with another Ward maquette, this one depicting the Marquis de Lafayette (right).

While steadying left arm by left leg, Ward’s Washington extends his right hand. His right arm departs the maquette’s vertical axis at a thirty-degree angle to accomplish the pose. This position creates triangular “negative space” between Washington’s arm and side, mirroring the triangular space between the four curled fingers and thumb of Washington’s right hand. These spaces persuade a viewer to see movement in plaster, to recognize that the maquette represents not only a figure but also a scene. They invite a viewer to imagine the Bible beneath Washington’s palm and the Inauguration Day that called Lower Manhattan its stage. So, as a nation anticipates the transfer of presidential power in Washington D.C. on January 20, 2021, the Gracie Mansion Conservancy pauses to remember April 30, 1789, Inauguration Day in the City of New York.

We begin with a frequent visitor to Gracie Mansion’s back porch: Alexander Hamilton.
Jonah Engel Bromwich of the New York Times notes that the term “Inauguration” with a capital “I” may find its roots in correspondence from Alexander Hamilton to George Washington dated 1789, the same year in which Washington first took the presidential oath of office.[2] This timeline intrigues Bromwich who recognizes that “inauguration” did not figure into the vocabulary of the Constitution for which Hamilton advocated vigorously.

While these ambitious New York circles brainstormed the language with which to articulate a president’s public engagements, snow disrupted logistics. The electoral ballot tally of 1789 yielded to weather. Winter bluster postponed plans for members of the First Federal Congress to travel to the then-capital, New York City, to form the quorum required for the official tally.[3] So, March 4, 1789 became April 30, 1789 as America’s first Inauguration Day.

The corner of Wall Street and Broad Street staged the scene with Federal Hall as its focal point. Fitting for the inauguration of the Continental Army’s commander-in-chief, a Revolutionary War veteran named Pierre L’Enfant stepped up as architect for the building’s 1788 renovation. A June 1789 article in The Massachusetts Magazine (reprinted by the New York Times) marveled that L’Enfant’s designs featured American marble and skylights, arches and canopies.[4] And his work ushered in the shift in the building’s name from “City Hall” to “Federal Hall,” the federal government’s new seat.[5]

The Conservancy’s Windows on the City: Looking Out on Gracie’s New York installation displayed a nineteenth-century drawing of Federal Hall by Thomas Worth.[6] Though this pen and wash drawing likely represents Federal Hall’s façade after its 1812 demolition and rebuilding, it captures the spirit of the scene on Inauguration Day 1789. So, let’s take a closer look.

With delicate lines, Worth communicates a four-piece colonnade that sturdies a balcony resembling that before which Washington stood to take the presidential oath of office in 1789 (the New-York Historical Society houses a section of the Inauguration Day balcony). The majority of Worth’s figures convene in clusters across the composition; they line up to chat with a comrade or push a wagon of wood. Their positions reinforce the diagonal sidewalks that Worth shades in dark grey to direct a viewer’s eye up to the Federal Hall balcony. Bursts of blue, yellow, orange, and green draw attention to the scene’s animation, to the crooked legs of trotting horses in the foreground and the teeny figure of a man who peers out a window and joins us as spectators.

Indeed, Worth’s drawing preserves the bustle around Federal Hall that also reverberates in records of America’s first Inauguration Day. Washington himself acknowledged that Americans shared in the significance of the ceremony, choosing to conclude his inaugural address with the first-person plural when referencing “the occasion which brings us together.”[7] As its name suggests, Broad Street boasted a width that could embrace a crowd. Mount Vernon historians recall that the crowd encircling Federal Hall on April 30, 1789 climbed to number in the hundreds.[8] Washington’s apparel was American-manufactured,[9] his military men his escorts along the procession.[10] Between one and two o’clock in the afternoon, Robert Livingston, the chancellor of the State of New York, led Washington in the presidential oath of office.[11]

The pen and wash drawing of Federal Hall by Thomas Worth

The pen and wash drawing of Federal Hall by Thomas Worth was on display at Gracie Mansion during the Windows on the City: Looking Out on Gracie’s New York exhibit. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

Though neither the nation’s capital nor Inauguration Day’s backdrop today, New York City and the site of Federal Hall remain connected to this quadrennial event. (One might note that in 1881, President Chester Arthur took the presidential oath of office on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan following President James Garfield’s assassination). In 2009, while Mayor Michael Bloomberg represented New York City at the Washington, D.C. ceremony, the New York Stock Exchange marked Inauguration Day at Federal Hall; it welcomed schoolchildren and National Park Service and Downtown Alliance members as it rang the famed opening bell in front of the site where Washington pledged to lead a new nation.[12] On Inauguration Day 2017, the Whitney Museum offered “pay-as-you-wish” tickets to view a special exhibit on immigration in America, joining other cultural institutions that rolled out itineraries of poetry readings, rallies, and menus that responded to a change in administrations. New York City is open-minded in its engagement with Inauguration Day and built memorials to its participants; this spring, Mayor de Blasio established the Commission on Racial Justice and Reconciliation, which will reconsider the presence of the bronze statue of Washington on Inauguration Day that currently sits on the Federal Hall National Memorial.

“The occasion which brings us together” on January 20, 2021 may more closely resemble George Washington’s quiet Inauguration Day dinner at Franklin House than the bustle of Inauguration Days past at the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. However, the commitment to beginnings born on the balcony of Federal Hall remains. And our television screens and laptops can step in to accomplish what Broad Street did in 1789: create space for Americans to celebrate democracy, in Washington’s words, “together.”

Emily Gruber
Writer, Researcher, and Docent for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
January 2021

[1] George Washington’s first inaugural address. 30 April, 1789. Manuscript/Mixed Material.  

[2] Jonah Engel Bromwich, “Inauguration. Noun. A Word We Use Every Four Years,” New York Times, January 19, 2017.

[3] The Center for Legislative Archives, “George Washington’s First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789,”

[4] “New York’s Old Federal Hall As It Was in Washington’s Day,” New York Times, April 24, 1932.

[5] National Park Service, “Foundation Document Overview: Federal Hall National Memorial, New York,”

[6] Gracie Mansion Conservancy, Windows on the City, 2018,

[7] Legislative Archives, “George Washington’s First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789,”

[8] George Washington’s Mount Vernon, “President Washington’s Inauguration,”

[9] The Native American, April 27, 1839,,0.6,1.383,0.67,0.

[10] The Native American, April 27, 1839,,0.6,1.383,0.67,0. Warren Weaver Jr., “The 41st President: History; From George Washington to George Bush, Speeches and Parades, Dances and Tradition, New York Times, January 20, 1989.

[11] George Washington’s Mount Vernon, “President Washington’s Inauguration,” The Center for Legislative Archives, “George Washington’s First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789,”

[12] Sewell Chan, “Watching the Inauguration from New York,” New York Times, January 20, 2009.

Production of Victory by William Gropper

A New Years signal of determination and hope

Tanks and planes burst through the open doors of a 1930s-1940s factory ready for the action of war. Industrial chimneys pump black smoke into the air.

FULL SPEED AHEAD, 1940 by William Gropper.

To celebrate Gracie Mansion as the official residence of New York’s mayors, the namesake Conservancy presented the exhibit New York 1942. Art and artifacts were on display throughout the public rooms of both the original landmark 1799 home and the Susan E. Wagner Wing, built a generation after the wartime year that Fiorello La Guardia moved in. In the year 1942, Gracie Mansion provided a safe and ideal domestic headquarters for civil defense at the start of La Guardia’s tumultuous third term.

Among these works of art and historic objects shown were two drawings by the great artist and activist, William Gropper: Full Speed Ahead and Production of Victory. Gropper had been the focus of a one-man exhibition, Bearing Witness, at the Queens Museum the year before. In both instances, the public learned more about this vital, versatile, and provocative artist from his first cousin once removed, the collector Harvey Ross and his wife and fellow traveler, Harvey- Ann Ross.

Gropper created Production of Victory as a New Year’s manifesto, featuring a baby as the personified delivery of the year 1942, when America fully entered into the Second World War. New York was labeled no less than the “The Arsenal of Democracy” by FDR. The exhibition catalog for New York 1942 included this text regarding the two works by Gropper:

Man-Baby swadded in 1942 cloth propels itself down industrials chimney.

PRODUCTION OF VICTORY, 1942 by William Gropper

William Gropper
Works on Paper Courtesy of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross with assistance of the Queens Museum

Printmaker, painter, satirist, and illustrator, William Gropper (1897-1977) spent six decades bearing witness to social injustice and the struggle to redress it. Born in the Lower East Side to impoverished Jewish immigrant parents, he learned early about the abuse of human rights. His aunt’s death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 radicalized him and fueled his notion of art as a catalyst for change. When America joined the war in 1941, he conjured New York as a key contributor to FDR’s “arsenal of democracy.” Due to this lifelong no-holds-barred zeal, he was one of the twenty-four artists examined in 1946 by the post-war House Un-American Activities Committee. Three years later Congressman Dondero of Michigan placed Gropper on the list kept by the CIA of suspected Communist sympathizers. And in 1953, Gropper was one of only two visual artists (Rockwell Kent was the other) subpoenaed to appear before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to answer this allegation. Though never a Party member, he invoked the Fifth Amendment prohibiting self- incrimination and was the first artist blacklisted by Congress as the McCarthy witch-hunt unfolded.

While early in his life Gropper’s work include satirical indictments of any he saw as oppressors — including even at times his fellow Jews (many like him, descending from the immigrants that inhabited Manhattan’s Lower East Side) — the rise of Hitler and the fascist threat he spread across the globe changed Gropper’s focus with sudden urgency. Like many other progressives previously skeptical of war, Gropper helped lead America into allied combat to crush the oppression and atrocities that isolationism would mean instead. This was a paradox of New York’s mid-century left.

Historian Dr. Joseph Gahn wrote:

Gone were the former diatribes against kosher businessmen, imperialistic Zionists, and rabbinical fakers,” wrote. “Gropper’s childhood sufferings shared with thousands of other Jews on the East Side seemed at last to have emerged as a strong feeling of brotherhood in the face of Hitler’s horrible persecutions.

In a drawing Gropper did in 1943 called Warsaw Ghetto, Nazi toughs hassle women and children forced to march along in a line; in another picture, the same three goons haul off a looted Torah and menorah from a pile of burning bodies.

The critic Cristina Schreil wrote in her 2016 Queens Museum review, “Several books he illustrated sit in display cases amid cartoons and newspaper clippings — one says ‘BEWARE Gropper will get you!’ — with photographs of him at work. A birthday greeting from Langston Hughes proclaiming him as a ‘Great artist and great friend of the people’ speaks to the impact of his six-decade career. That attention wasn’t always peaceful; in creating a cartoon series for Vanity Fair in 1935, Gropper drew unlikely historical situations and one depicted Japanese Emperor Hirohito receiving a Nobel Prize for Peace. The Japanese government demanded an apology, which the U.S government granted — while allowing the drawing to receive lots of coverage besides.”

The Queens Museum curators, as well as Kalia Brooks who curated Gracie Mansion’s New York 1942 exhibit, saw how Gropper feared the horrors to come, “attuned to the impending dangers of Fascism” as Mussolini, Hirohito and Hitler grew in force and inhumanity. His inclusion in Gracie Mansion’s anniversary salute to its emergency roots as a safe house for mayors was thus imperative. Gropper’s worthy alarm paralleled precisely that of President Roosevelt and La Guardia.

Depictions of black families during the Great Migration in which many moved from the South to the North.


Art collectors Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross have been much in the news of late as the primary lenders to what the New York Times labeled the greatest exhibition in the pandemic-plagued year of 2020, Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, as well as another top-ranked show, Vida Americana: Mexican Muralists Remake American Art, at the Whitney Museum.

To paraphrase the curators, Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Austen Barron Bailly, and Lydia Gordon at the Peabody Essex Museum, where The American Struggle originated:

Harvey [Ross] did not come to this with an art background. He discovered Jacob Lawrence as part of a quest to better understand his own family history. All his life he was told about this ‘famous artist’ in the family. Only later, did he discover that the artist, William Gropper, was not just famous in his family, but was one of the leading radical artists in America in the 1930s and 1940s.

It was through this research into his roots that Ross read about Lawrence, who had become a friend of Gropper’s and his circle of like-minded artists, writers and activists.

They also learned that some of the paintings were in private hands and thought they might be able to add one to their Gropper collection, which focused on civil rights, the dignity of labor and the immigrant experience in America.

Harvey Ross summarizes best about this Lawrence link, “He was a man of strong principles who went against the grain and put himself in danger for doing that. We were immediately moved by what we saw, a more inclusive story about those involved in creating a better society that included women, African Americans, Native Americans and immigrants.”

Until Gracie Mansion can safely re-open and our free, public tour program can re-start, please visit our website (, to view the full catalog for New York 1942. Catalogs for other exhibits, including the current exhibition, CATALYST: Art and Social Justice, are also on-line. You can also follow @graciemansionconservancy on Instagram to learn more about both the present and the past of Gracie Mansion, a place where history is made as well as measured.

Paul Gunther
Executive Director
Gracie Mansion Conservancy
(with the help of Harvey Ross, Pioneering Connoisseur, Collector, Lender, and Foremost Champion of his first cousin once removed, William Gropper)

New Year’s Day, January 1, 2021

Keeping Time in a “24/7” City: A Look at Christopher Colles’s Sundial (ca. 1800) on this Saint Patrick’s Day

Copper sundial

Copper sundial, circa 1800, by Christopher Colles.

Direction defines the City of New York. The metropolis promises opportunities to find direction, to change direction. Figurative direction and pragmatic direction are teammates in Gotham. At intersections, strangers share time. They clarify uptown from downtown for a newcomer. And they confirm a shared ambition to find the route—and to find it in good time.

So, a sundial suits the spirit of this city with its eye on the path and the clock. It announces the time of day by tracking the shadows cast by a “gnomon” rod based on the sun’s position. The hour lines on the sundial’s surface offer precision. Keeping time since antiquity, the sundial facilitated prayer schedules and intrigued engineers, mathematicians, and astronomers.[1]

This technology connected daily lives to the solar system and New York City to Europe. Fashionable in Europe since the Renaissance, immigrants introduced the sundial to New York City markets.[2] Christopher Colles (1738-1821) was one such immigrant.[3] In celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day, the Gracie Mansion Conservancy welcomes you to join us in recognizing the “farsightedness” that Colles dedicated to the City of New York—and a sundial that captures it.[4]

Colles, an inventor and engineer, relocated from Ireland to New York between 1765 and 1771.[5] Cued in to Gotham’s appreciation of direction, Colles published the inaugural United States road map in 1789.[6] A “pioneer” in the push to provide water to the City of New York, Colles advocated for a canal through the Mohawk Valley and constructed America’s first steam engine.[7] “Every movement in which [Colles] took a part must have had a salutary influence on the masses of those days,” declared a contemporary New York Times contributor.[8]

During those early nineteenth-century days, Colles marked a copper sundial (ca. 1800) that the Conservancy displayed in the Windows on the City installation.[9] Given burgeoning discrimination against Irish and Catholics in the United States, it is notable that Colles constructed a sundial.[10] Perhaps this technology doubled as Colles’s ode to Ireland’s eighteenth-century clockmaking tradition.[11] Perhaps it doubled as this inventor’s call upon his new city to see the creativity that he and his fellow Irish immigrants could share. Though it lacks its gnomon, this sundial preserves Colles’s design, one that is—like New York City itself—both purposeful and imaginative. Lee Dembart of the New York Times mused that “there is a quiet pleasure in examining” these “motionless objects.”[12] The Conservancy invites you to join us in doing just that.

Colles lends clarity to the 1 x 8 ¾ x 8 ¾ in. sundial by prioritizing consistency and symmetry in its design; a sundial is, after all, pragmatic. An eight-sided celestial body serves as the focal point. The sundial’s octagonal frame reinforces the import of that shape and the sun that it likely represents. Colles tucks the guiding terms of “noon” and “midnight,” “latitude” and “longitude” between the conical solar rays in reliable symmetry. Within concentric circles, Colles standardizes the sizes of numerals. Through this gesture, the practical becomes decorative; the digits orbit in a parade of lines and curves that complement the ornamentation engraved in the solar rays.

Penmanship complicates that steadiness of form and style. While Colles prints the names of months and cities, he reserves cursive for text that extends beyond the empirical. A new language, Latin, accompanies this new writing style. Colles thus offers the warning, Noli confidere noctem, which a Classicist may translate as “do not trust in the night.” Colles organizes his Latin vocabulary to visually convey the ominous tenor of that message. The words representing “do not” and “night,” “noli” and “noctem,” respectively, encircle the verb for “to trust in” or “believe in,” “confidere.” The alliteration of those terms fuels their spatial and, by extent, expressive, encroachment.

To be sure, Colles inscribes that Latin phrase along that same arc that his numerals follow. The spiral that introduces the “N” of “noli” and the upward curve on the final “m” of “noctem” accelerate the rhythm of the curve. These points of (literal) alignment beckon a viewer to understand the Latin phrase not as detached from the sundial itself but as crucial to an understanding of its purpose. The inscription reminds us why one might need such a timepiece. Colles urges us to distinguish night from day. And he defends his craft.

In fact, he animates it. Colles’s sundial challenges Dembart’s characterization of such a device as “motionless.”[13] Colles’s sundial welcomes movement—not only from the sun but also from the viewer. To engage with this timepiece, one must redirect her gaze. For example, Colles inscribes the names of months so that they wrap around their respective circles; “December” and “January” appear upside down to the viewer who rests her eye on the vertical axis that runs through Colles’s own signature and the Pearl Street address. This sundial is interactive. Just as the movement of the sun clarifies time on this device so too does a viewer’s movement relative to the sundial.

Time moves differently for us today as we mark the second Saint Patrick’s Day of a pandemic, a quieter celebration in what historian Kenneth Jackson once called a metropolis of “24/7” energy.[14] Christopher Colles’s sundial beckons us to tweak our understanding of time just a bit more. This artifact unites past (Irish clockmaking), present (the time calculated with the equation table that Colles inscribes), and future (the technology that Colles drove) in one device. As we look forward to Saint Patrick’s Days of brighter years ahead, we join Colles in appreciating dialogue across time.

Emily Gruber
Writer, Researcher, and Docent for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
March 2021

[1] “Sundial,” Museum of the History of Science, Oxford, et al.,
[2] Gracie Mansion Conservancy, Windows on the City,
[3] “City Water System Proposed in 1774,” New York Times, August 26, 1917.
[4] “City Water System Proposed in 1774,” New York Times, August 26, 1917.
[5] “City Water System Proposed in 1774,” New York Times, August 26, 1917. Gracie Mansion Conservancy, Windows on the City, “Sundial,” New-York Historical Society,;jsessionid=D4B73C2E336D2F64553055DA2129BDBE.
[6] View Colles’s map on the Library of Congress website: National First Ladies’ Timeline,
[7] “City Water System Proposed in 1774,” New York Times, August 26, 1917.
[8] Mandeville Mower, “It was Christopher Colles Who Was the Friend of Fulton and Projector of the Croton Water System,” New York Times, February 28, 1894.
[9] In Windows, this sundial was on loan from the New-York Historical Society. “Sundial,” New-York Historical Society,;jsessionid=D4B73C2E336D2F64553055DA2129BDBE.

[10] New York City did not receive its first Irish-Catholic mayor until 1880 with the election of William R. Grace. Library of Congress, “Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History,”
[11] Sandra Jordan, “The History of Irish Clockmaking? All but Forgotten, a Dealer Says,” New York Times, November 2, 2017.
[12] Lee Dembart, “Out of Doors,” New York Times, April 15, 1977.
[13] Lee Dembart, “Out of Doors,” New York Times, April 15, 1977.
[14] Deepti Hajela, “As NYC awakens, navigating a strange new normal,”, June 14, 2020,

Letter to the World (Kick) by Barbara Morgan

Done in black and white photography a young woman in a white draping dres angles her torso and head parelle to the floor as she kicks her left leg backward.

Letter to the World (Kick) by Barbara Morgan

One of the great collaborations of 20th century American art unfolded in New York across many decades between the legendary modern dance pioneer Martha Graham (1894-1991) and photographer Barbara Morgan (1990-1992).

A book published in 1941 entitled Sixteen Dances in Photos featured Morgan’s images of Graham performing in Letter to the World, a 1940 work inspired by the letters of Emily Dickinson. These iconic portraits capture the rule-breaking strides of Modernism in all disciplines, but for dance and choreography above all. Morgan said her intent was, “to free the figure within the space,” as chronicler of an entirely new vocabulary of motion. Graham summarized her philosophy late in life, “ The body says what words cannot…Dance is the hidden language of the soul of that body.”

Letter to the world is seen hanging on walls of Gracie Mansion. Done in black and white photography, a young woman in a white draping dress angles her torso and head parelle to the floor as she kicks her left leg backward.

Letter to the World (Kick) by Barbara Morgan was part of the New York 1942 exhibit at Gracie Mansion.

Just two years before, Ms. Graham became the first woman to dance at the White House at the Roosevelts’ combined behest. During the War, she matched fervent patriotism with disdain for global fascism. In 1942 she addressed these themes directly in a work she called Land Be Bright.


Paul Gunther, Executive Director
Gracie Mansion Conservancy
Women’s History Month, March 25, 2021

Knoll Lounge Chairs by Florence Knoll

Grey louge chair

A Knoll Lounge chair, in Hopsack fabric.

Florence Knoll had a long and legendary career as one of the greatest designers and entrepreneurs of Modernism. This was more than a style but a social transformation, which from the mid-20th-century until today has shaped the built environment and the ways its inhabitants work, play, and strive.

Born in 1917 — and still alive at 102 when the Gracie Mansion exhibit She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York opened in 2019 — Florence Schust grew up in Saginaw Michigan and began her studies at Kingswood School for Girls. In 1934, she enrolled in the architecture program of the prestigious nearby Cranbrook Academy of Art. Beginning with the great Finnish immigrant architect and Cranbrook dean, Eliel Saarinen, Florence’s studies and training advanced through the men-only ranks of this new International Style vanguard, including fellow legendary pioneers, Eero Saarinen (Eliel’s son,) Alvar Aalto, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Charles Eames, Le Corbusier, Harry Bertoia, and Mies van der Rohe.

Gray Knoll chairs are seamlessly integrated into the decore of the the sea green hues of the Library at Gracie Mansion.

Two Knoll Lounge chairs were set in the Gracie Mansion Library during the She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York exhibit in 2019.

Theirs was an architecture and design philosophy resting on a sexist theoretical foundation that favored autonomous, “masculine” machines for living imposed on the supine or “feminine” natural world. Besides helping operate these machines in subservient or domestic ways, the women’s place was relegated to what was perceived as the lesser trades or mere pastimes of decoration and gardening.

Florence helped prove them wrong when, relocating to New York in 1941, she joined forces with her future husband, Hans Knoll, in creating their namesake firm as a highly successful global brand of modernist design excellence still in force today.  In her own design work — alongside her business acumen — she introduced notions of efficiency, space planning, and a comprehensive approach especially for the workplace. Ms. Knoll saw her contribution more as a creator of “total works of art,” than as furniture designer alone.

Warmed through color and texture, her enduring lounge chairs from 1954, made from Knoll Hopsack upholstery fabric and steel, translate the rhythm and proportions of mid-century Modern architecture. With a spare, geometric profile — an expression of the rational design approach Florence Knoll learned from mentor, Mies van der Rohe — the lounge chair remains timelessly contemporary.

* Florence Knoll died just days later on January 25, 2019

Paul Gunther
Executive Director
Gracie Mansion Conservancy
Women’s History Month, March 25, 2021

What Was Brewing at 82 Wall Street? A Visit to the Tontine Coffee House with Francis Guy

While New York City’s official mayoral residence sits amidst the respite of Yorkville’s Carl Schurz Park, the mayor journeys down Manhattan Island to conduct official business. Today we join the mayor at the tip of Manhattan, where twenty-four men once convened under a tree and fashioned New York finance.

On May 17, 1792 those twenty-four stockbrokers assembled at the corner of Wall and Water Streets. There they finalized the Buttonwood Agreement, the document that codified the predecessor to today’s New York Stock Exchange.[1] United ideologically, the financiers needed a venue where they could unite in person, to talk and to trade.

A coffeehouse provided that hub. For Manhattanites of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to visit a coffeehouse was not only to cozy up to a jolt of espresso, a crunch of biscotti, a chat with a friend. Through 1836, to visit a coffeehouse was to network, to trade, to impress.[2]

And that is just what the financial elite of New York did at the Merchants’ Coffee House on the southeast corner of Water and Wall Streets. The establishment of the Bank of New York and the reconfiguration of the Chamber of Commerce each called the Merchants’ Coffee House its stage.[3] In 1789, the New York City mayor selected it as the setting of choice for an official welcome to President George Washington.[4]

Meanwhile, those merchants extended their knack for finance to another anchor of New York – real estate. In 1790, they established the Tontine Association as the heart of Manhattan’s merchant community. The merchants grounded the association in a group investment (a “tontine”), selling 203 shares at $200 each.[5] That tontine bankrolled the construction of a new coffeehouse at 82 Wall Street, on the northwest corner of Wall and Water Streets. By 1793, the stockbrokers swapped the Merchants’ Coffee House for the second floor of 82 Wall Street, for the built centerpiece of Gotham’s “magnificence,” momentum, and money – the Tontine Coffee House.[6]

With its “handsome bricks and mortar,” the Tontine Coffee House received daily visits from notable New Yorkers. Archibald Gracie, the shipping tycoon and eponymous builder of today’s mayoral residence, participated in the Tontine Association.[7] Reminiscent of Gracie Mansion, the Tontine Coffee House welcomed opportunities to accommodate diverse activities. The Merchants’ Exchange worked out of the site, and the New York Insurance Company called it headquarters.[8] When Aaron Burr’s shot struck Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804, New Yorkers counted on the Tontine Coffee House as a hub for updates on Hamilton’s condition.[9] According to the New-York Historical Society’s “Guide to the Records of the Tontine Coffee-House,” Tontine members documented ship arrivals in New York and developments in the War of 1812.[10] By the mid-1800s, New Yorkers knew 82 Wall Street as a hotel and a newspaper publishing site.[11] Indeed, though no longer standing, the Tontine Coffee House was once “the scene of many stirring events in the annals of history and trade.”[12]

And in 1797, Francis Guy painted it. In anticipation of the Buttonwood Agreement’s 230th anniversary in 2022, the Gracie Mansion Conservancy will take a look at Guy’s oil-on-linen snapshot of the Tontine Coffee House.[13] The composition may help us understand what was brewing in New York City in the late eighteenth through nineteenth centuries.

“Everything was in motion: all was life, bustle, and activity,” a man named John Lambert observed upon his November 1807 visit to the Tontine Coffee House.[14] Guy positioned his human figures on the linen to convince a viewer of that motion. The figures cluster, forming duos and trios poised to strategize, to negotiate, together. The Tontine Coffee House’s triad of arched windows on the left reinforces, architecturally, that spirit of collaboration. Guy choreographed carefully. He parted the legs of the men who mingle on the porch to impart movement. Indeed, these stances, with their pointed toes, remind a viewer of ballet footwork. The rare solo figures strain to participate in or catch a glimpse of the action. Guy contoured at least three solo white figures who peer out of windows on the far left, center, and far right of the composition. With rounded postures, these figures break from the linearity of the rectangular windows – punctuated by grid-like panes – conveying their urgency to join in the activity that Lambert eyed too.

Indeed, attention to space occupies the minds not only of Guy and of us as viewers but also of the figures themselves. Space can promise privacy. It can welcome prying. These possibilities loom at a destination, such as the Tontine Coffee House, fueled by strategy. In this composition, Guy communicated the caution that such possibilities demand. (In fact, Guy ensured that a viewer shares in eighteenth-century New Yorkers’ itch to find space, as a viewer enters the scene at a packed intersection.) On the Tontine Coffee House’s porch, men huddle between the three floor-to-ceiling windows, distancing their conversation from those indoors. On the right of the composition, four men convene by a lamppost. Guy extended the right arm of the figure on the far left of that group, a gesture that closes the circle of his quartet.

Though Guy painted the scene on a horizontal piece of linen, verticality defines the composition. One can count the number of horizontal figures in the frame: the barrels in the foreground, the horses on the composition’s far right and left, the two American flags. However, it is the central vertical axis that draws a viewer’s eye to a notable sight. A skinny rectangle of white trim runs down the side of the russet building that defines the composition’s central vertical axis. Twin female figures march by in floor-length white dresses, reaffirming the linearity. Guy swiped two parallel red lines in the region of those women’s feet, guiding a viewer’s eye down to the red jacket beneath them in the foreground.

That red jacket is worn by one of two black figures in Guy’s composition. These men bend at the waist, forming two horizontal shapes at the painting’s center. To be sure, two white male figures also crook at the waist to a viewer’s left, creating a foil to the two black figures. The white men move toward one another, a position that suggests conversation. The two black figures, however, move away from one another. Their animation is in the service of a task.

By forwarding these figures on his composition’s central vertical axis, Guy urged a viewer to recognize that the scene’s narrative is layered. One must remember that the two black men in the foreground may have been free men or enslaved people.[15] Between 1711 and 1762, the Tontine Coffee House stood just paces away from the “Meal Market,” New York City’s first market for enslaved people.[16] Here, Guy reminds a viewer that at 82 Wall Street, New Yorkers brutally assigned monetary values to individuals who descended from ships arriving from Africa.[17] As we anticipate the 230th anniversary of the Buttonwood Agreement, we must answer Guy’s call to remember the corner of Wall and Water Streets as an intersection not only of influence but also of injustice. We must document the cost of the “life, bustle, and activity” that defined the streetscape.[18] And we will.


Emily Gruber
Writer, Researcher, and Docent for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
May 2021


[1] One can read the Buttonwood Agreement here:

[2] Kenneth T. Jackson, The Encyclopedia of the City of New York (Yale University Press, 2010), 275.

[3] New-York Historical Society, “Merchants Coffee House,”

[4] Kenneth T. Jackson, The Encyclopedia of the City of New York (Yale University Press, 2010), 274.

[5] New-York Historical Society, “Guide to the Records of the Tontine Coffee-House 1738-1879 (bulk 1791-1871) MS 631,

[6] Columbia University, Mapping the African American Past, “Tontine Cofeehouse,” Marie Nadine Antol, Confessions of a Coffee Bean (New York: Square One Publishers, 2002), 53.

[7] Tom Verde, “When Others Die, Tontine Investors Win,” New York Times, March 24, 2017.

[8] Kenneth T. Jackson, The Encyclopedia of the City of New York (Yale University Press, 2010), 274. New-York Historical Society. “Guide to the Records of the Tontine Coffee-House 1738-1879 (bulk 1791-1871) MS 631,

[9] Kenneth T. Jackson, The Encyclopedia of the City of New York (Yale University Press, 2010), 274.

[10] New-York Historical Society, “Guide to the Records of the Tontine Coffee-House 1738-1879 (bulk 1791-1871) MS 631,

[11] New-York Historical Society, “Guide to the Records of the Tontine Coffee-House 1738-1879 (bulk 1791-1871) MS 631,

[12] Marie Nadine Antol, Confessions of a Coffee Bean (New York: Square One Publishers, 2002), 52. Robert Hewitt, Coffee, its history, cultivation, and uses (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1872), 34.

[13] Gracie Mansion Conservancy Curriculum, 25,

[14] United States of America, Congressional Record. “Proceedings and Debates of the 76th Congress, Third Session.” Volume 86, Part 6: May 9, 1940 to May 27, 1940, 6562.

[15] New-York Historical Society, “The Tontine Coffee House by Francis Guy,”

[16] Anne C. Bailey, “For hundreds of years, enslaved people were bought and sold in America. Today most of the sites of this trade are forgotten,” New York Times, February 12, 2020,

[17] Columbia University, Mapping the African American Past, “Tontine Coffee House, c. 1979 (oil on linen),”

[18] United States of America, Congressional Record. “Proceedings and Debates of the 76th Congress, Third Session.” Volume 86, Part 6: May 9, 1940 to May 27, 1940, 6562.

A Gift from Grace to Gracie: Continuity, Change, and the Mayor’s Office  

“Catalyst: Art and Social Justice.” Exhibit at Gracie Mansion on Monday, February 24, 2020. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

While monuments pause time, they also capture the inability to do just that. The reliability of a monument emphasizes the change that encircles it. Monuments help us see transition, a term now afloat in the halls of Gracie Mansion. As a new installation awaits a new administration, it seems fitting to spend a moment with a piece from the permanent collection, which one might say serves as a monument in the People’s House.

In New York City, a monument functions both as a pragmatic guidepost and as built memory. Monuments help us clarify our locations on the grid. They help us recognize a neighborhood. They help us convene. Upon opening Gracie Mansion’s sturdy front door, one immediately glimpses three-quarters of a chandelier that exhibits these features of a monument.


Up the six foyer steps and through dark wood doors, this George III-style chandelier (ca. 1785, with parts added in the twentieth century) from County Tyrone, Ireland announces the ballroom. Its seven-light structure balances linearity with frolicking ornamentation. Two rows of lights march around the central vertical axis. At the same time the chandelier’s arms dip and curl, concluding with a “U” shape that holds each candle.

Due to its placement across from a convex mirror, the chandelier doubles. While it thus declares its place as a ballroom centerpiece, it also recedes. It invites viewers’ attention and then makes sure that they appreciate the ornamentation and objects that share the ballroom space. For example, above the two rows for candles is a shape that resembles the three hydriae atop the fireplace. The chandelier’s crystal and glass reflect the blue of the ballroom’s walls. And the light fixture as a whole lends a line of symmetry for the flags of the United States and the State of New York that flank the fireplace, grounding visitors geographically (as monuments do).

While this chandelier thus provides a spirit of illumination, it also offers literal illumination. Glass stepped in during the era before electricity.[1] Such material would “[pick] up bright colors” and scatter light across a room’s expanse.[2] By placing a chandelier of molded glass and crystal across from a mirror – a layout modeled by the Gracie Mansion ballroom – one could maximize such light distribution.

Indeed, while chandeliers dot Gracie Mansion, the ballroom’s arrived in celebration of transition itself. In 1966, the descendants of Mayor William Russell Grace (1832-1904) bequeathed this chandelier upon Gracie Mansion for the then-new two-floor Wagner Wing. Their ancestor, Mayor Grace, ran away to this city at age fourteen.[3] And he embodied that spirit of transition that defined Gracie Mansion both in 1966 and today.

When Mayor Grace ran away, he left County Cork, Ireland for a city where he would become the first Irish-American Roman Catholic mayor.[4] But before that election season, Grace – like this Yorkville estate’s original resident, Archibald Gracie – entered the shipping industry. In 1864, Grace established his “industrial company,” W.R. Grace & Co. (“Grace” for short), in Peru.[5] There Grace engaged with Americans who cued him in to “the quickening, exhilarating pace of life in New York.”[6] So, in 1865, Grace moved his eponymous company to the City of New York, where he commenced “triangular trade” with Europe and South America.[7] Grace also found fortune “harvesting bat and bird guano in the Pacific.”[8]

Grace chose New York as home.[9] And in 1880 his fellow New Yorkers elected him to the mayoralty on the United Democracy ticket. After a brief hiatus from the Mayor’s Office, Grace returned for the 1884 election cycle as a County Democracy and Citizens’ Party candidate. “Pledges from both Republican and Tammany Ranks” arrived for Grace’s re-election campaign. According to the New York Times, the circumstances in New York City “demand[ed] the election to the Mayoralty of a man of ability and experience in public affairs… [and thus] demand[ed] the selection of an experienced businessman such as Mr. Grace has already shown himself to be.”[10] Mayor Grace secured re-election via “a movement independent of a party.”[11]

The New York Times commended Grace’s mayoral tenure as one “recognized impartially as notably advantageous to the welfare of the city.”[12] “Born a diplomat,” Grace was Gotham’s first bilingual mayor, speaking both English and Spanish.[13] He fought Tammany Hall (as various cartoons from the 1880s memorialize) and valued local self-government.[14] And he proved staunch in his dedication to moments of change in New York City, where he “liked to be close to the action.”[15] When Mayor Seth Low ran on a fusion ticket, Mayor Grace moved up his return from summer holiday so that he might participate in election season.[16] New York remembered Mayor Grace as “the best Mayor that the city has had for a long time.”[17]

New York City owes two crucial monuments to Mayor Grace. Only hours after the death of President Ulysses S. Grant, Mayor Grace dispatched a telegram to the Grant family. Grace reminded the Grants of “the informal desire of the authorities of this city to have National honor done to it by making it the last resting place of General Grant.”[18] Scholars note that Mayor Grace’s communications crucially swayed the Grant family’s choice of New York City for President Grant’s tomb.[19]

And it was Mayor Grace who accepted France’s 1885 gift of the Statue of Liberty, a monument that captures in copper New York City’s refrain: “welcome.” In his address to French delegates upon the statue’s arrival in late October 1886, Mayor Grace recognized that the gift reflected an earlier gift of shared purpose. He communicated his attention to history, to change when he echoed Americans’ appreciation for France. Mayor Grace commemorated, in his own words, “the brave nation that allied itself with [Americans’] forefathers in the dark days of the Revolution, and which aided them in fighting the battler of liberty, whose outcome was destined to lend so deep an impulse to the cause of freedom throughout the civilized world.”[20]

That reverence for “the cause of freedom” reaffirms the suitability of the placement of the Grace descendants’ chandelier in the Gracie Mansion ballroom. Dropping from the concave eighteen-foot ceiling, the chandelier’s lowest point is spherical.[21] Such curvature echoes that of the convex mirror in front of it. This alignment draws a viewer’s eye down to the fireplace before which Alexander Hamilton breathed one last breath. Like Mayor Grace, Hamilton chose New York as home and fought for its freedom, its development. For both men, arrival in New York City itself marked a transition. That spirit of change propelled their work. And the Conservancy hopes that visitors see in the ballroom chandelier a monument to that spirit, to the change that New York City imagines and invites.


Emily Gruber
Writer, Researcher, and Docent for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
August 2021

[1] “Gracie Mansion: A Student Guide to the People’s House,” 5.

[2] “Gracie Mansion: A Student Guide to the People’s House,” 5.

[3] “William R. Grace,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, “William R. Grace’s Career,” New York Times, March 22, 1904.

[4] New York City Municipal Archives, “Guide to the records of the Early Mayors, 1826-1897,” 56. Collection No. 0002. Joan Waugh, U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 271.

[5] W.R. Grace & Co. possessed “international interests in specialty chemicals, construction materials, coatings, and sealants.” “W.R. Grace & Co.” Encyclopedia Britannica. For a full timeline of W.R. Grace & Co., one can visit

[6] Lawrence A. Clayton, Grace: W.R. Grace & Co. The Formative Years 1850-1930 (Lawrence A. Clayton, 1985), 50.

[7] “Our History.”

[8] Notably, the New York Times used Mayor Grace’s wealth as a point of entry into a discussion of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s well-known financial success. Sam Roberts, “Podcast: If I Were a Rich Mayor,” New York Times, August 7, 2008.

[9] Sam Roberts, “Podcast: If I Were a Rich Mayor,” New York Times, August 7, 2008.

[10] “Grace a Strong Candidate: Pledges from Both Republican and Tammany Ranks,” New York Times, October 29, 1884.

[11] “Mayor Grace. From Harper’s Weekly,” New York Times, October 13, 1886.

[12] “William R. Grace’s Career,” New York Times, March 22, 1904.

[13] “William R. Grace’s Career,” New York Times, March 22, 1904. “Grace Elected 1st NY Catholic Mayor,” The Irish Echo, July 29, 2020.

[14] Geoffrey Cobb, “Grace Elected 1st NY Catholic Mayor,” Irish Echo, July 29, 2020. J. Kepper, “Kik – kik – cock-a-doodle doo! Mr. Kelly, how are you?” Library of Congress. One can access more cartoons that pit Mayor Grace against Tammany Hall on the Library of Congress website. “City Reforms Suggested,” New York Times, January 6, 1885.

[15] Lawrence A. Clayton, Grace: W.R. Grace & Co. The Formative Years 1850-1930 (Lawrence A. Clayton, 1985), 51.

[16] “William R. Grace Will Vote for Low,” New York Times, October 21, 1903.

[17] “Mayor Grace. From Harper’s Weekly,” New York Times, October 13, 1886.

[18] Joan Waugh, U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 271.

[19] Joan Waugh, U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth (University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 271.

[20] “The Freedom of the City: Entertaining the Delegates from France,” New York Times, October 28, 1886.

[21] “Wing of Gracie Mansion to Bow with a Formal Grand Ballroom,” New York Times, September 7, 1966.

James Van Der Zee in the Gracie Mansion Conservancy Collection

Harlem-based photographer James Van Der Zee (1886-1983) remains a critical figure in local history, its artistic evolution above all. He was a native of Lenox, Massachusetts whose innate creative talent was enhanced by self-study and passion. He arrived New York City in 1906 to work with his father and brother as waiters, elevator operators, and, in his case, both an aspiring photographer as well as a violinist and pianist in the Harlem Orchestra. A decade later, in 1916, when immigrants and black migrants were arriving in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem in large numbers, Van Der Zee took the bold step to open a portrait studio in his sister’s music conservatory. Two years later, he opened the Guarantee Photo shop on Lenox Avenue.

An undated black and white photo of an unidentified black woman standing draped in white crinoline holding a boutque. By James Van Der Zee, part of the permanent collection of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy.

An undated photo of an unidentified New Yorker by James Van Der Zee, part of the permanent collection of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy.

Almost immediately, Van Der Zee became “the most successful photographer in Harlem,” according to Shira Wolfe, writing for Artland. Early 20th century black activist Marcus Garvey, black entertainer and dancer Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson and renowned black poet Countee Cullen were among his more prominent subjects.

An undated black and white photo of an unidentified black woman posing infront of a piano. By James Van Der Zee, part of the permanent collection of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy.

An undated photo of an unidentified New Yorker by James Van Der Zee, part of the permanent collection of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy.

Triggered initially by the onset of the Great Depression and followed by the shared sacrifices of Work War II, Van Der Zee’s career declined with only a few assignments related to governmental agencies and advertising. Fortunately, by the year 1967, his great talent was rediscovered by fellow photographers and photo-historians; as a result, he began receiving attention—and portrait commissions—far beyond Harlem. Thoughts of retirement disappeared completely just as several celebrities also began promoting his work. Exhibits and publications sprung up around the nation. In 1993, the National Portrait Gallery exhibited Van Der Zee’s work as a posthumous tribute to his remarkable genius.

Jean-Michel Basquiat seated in an chair looks to his right.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1983, by James Van Der Zee was part of the New Yorkers at Work and Play exhibit at Gracie Mansion Conservancy. Courtesy of Randall Bourscheidt.

In the last eight years, the Conservancy has shown work from two phases of James Van Der Zee’s long, now fabled career. First, in 2018, in a bridge installation called New Yorkers at Work and Play (held between the major exhibitions of New York 1942 and She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York, 1919-2019), visitors saw Van Der Zee’s insightful, late–career 1982 portrait of the then-emerging artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, holding the studio cat. Second, beginning in September 2021 and going forward as part of the GMC’s permanent collection, a set of four Harlem studio portraits taken during the halcyon days of the Guarantee Photo shop will hang in the historic home. Research continues as to the creation dates and the subjects of the quartet of proud New Yorkers photographed while bedecked for special occasions. Online viewing will yield to in-person visits as soon as health protocols permit!

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
October 2021

Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms

The year 2022 signals the 80th anniversary of Gracie Mansion as the official home of New York City’s mayors. The new mayor arriving then will be the landmark’s 10th official resident.

In 2017, the Gracie Mansion Conservancy marked the 75th birthday of “The People’s House” with a special exhibit called New York 1942. Its curator was art historian Kalia Brooks.

Norman Rockwell’s four iconic pictures adorned the public entrance to the exhibition and set the thematic stage for the show as little else could—just as the renowned American artist and illustrator had in mind when he created them as the catalyzing backdrop to a second American entry into the sacrifices of world war.

images interpreting the four freedoms : Freedom from Want (aka Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving), Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, and Freedom from Fear. Top left: A family sits for Thanksgiving dinner. An older woman is places a cooked turkey in the center of the table. Top right: A man stands in church pews as others look toward him. His leaflet is tucked into his jacket pocket. Bottom left: A mother and father put there two children off to bed. The mother draws the blanket up to the childrens cheeks as the Father watches calmly. Bottom right: This painting is done in black white contrary to other pieces. Men and women of all ages look pensively to the left. Some position there hands as if in prayer. Others are solemn. the phrase "each according to the dictates of his conscience" appears at the top of the painting.

Four Freedoms, 1943, by Norman Rockwell. Courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA. Clockwise from top left: Freedom from Want (aka Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving), Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, and Freedom from Fear.

Rockwell took as the subject of this painting series the four essential freedoms outlined in the seminal State of the Union address delivered before Congress by native New Yorker President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on January 6, 1941—11 months and one day before the attack on Pearl Harbor. What became known as the Four Freedoms Speech served as the thematic basis of the August 1941 Atlantic Charter, which later defined the Allied mission in World War II, and the ensuing plans for peace centered on creation of the United Nations. The beloved realist artist animated these four basic human rights with idealized scenes of daily life whose nostalgic accessibility reminded Americans of the urgency to defeat global fascism. For Rockwell these were freedoms worth fighting for as part his enrollment in Artists for Victory, a creative consortium providing the government with artworks strengthening the nation’s resolve.

The text of Roosevelt’s speech perfectly summarizes the paintings’ intent:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings, which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which translated into world terms, means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in the position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.

This great text also informs the namesake Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park monument at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island just across from Gracie’s East River-side site.

The Conservancy took this anniversary occasion to begin telling the story of Mayor La Guardia’s arrival at Gracie Mansion in 1942 in what was his third and final term, namely his need to set an example of civil defense, known as Homeland Security today. By relocating from his beloved six-room rental unit at Fifth Avenue at 109th Street to the relative safety of Gracie’s parkland setting with clear access to both sea and air, the beloved “Little Flower” was able to signal his own personal freedom from fear by taking protective measures against the dangers posed by the rise of global fascism. One cannot work towards a freedom from fear until fear itself becomes a comprehensible yet surmountable risk factor of daily life.

Such broadened narrative content will animate the 2022 return of public tours in time for the anniversary celebration!


Paul Gunther
Executive Director, Gracie Mansion Conservancy
October 2021

For One to Whom Gracie Mansion Belonged, it “Really Belonged to the People”

As the Conservancy looks forward to swinging open the two hefty doors to the Susan E. Wagner Wing so too will it renew its welcome to a woman who “was a gracious hostess to the famous and the thousands of plain New Yorkers who toured the premises.”[1]

That New Yorker was Susan E. Wagner, wife of Mayor Robert F. Wagner (1954-1965). The former three-term mayor gifted Gracie Mansion with Willy Pogany’s Portrait of Susan Edwards Wagner, ca. 1955, a painting of his wife who, at fifty-four years old, spent the final moments of a battle with breast cancer in the residence.[2]


Black and hite image of the Ballroom.

Mrs. Wagner’s interior whereabouts has evolved over the ensuing decades. Indeed, the pilasters that reinforce the ballroom’s triumphant eighteen-foot ceilings no longer provide a frame for her portrait; in 2002, she moved to the adjacent Peach Room. Here again visitors find the warm expression of this woman whom, in 1966, arriving Mayor John Lindsay celebrated posthumously as “a very beautiful lady.”[1] Ironically, New York City’s First Lady was “essentially shy.”[2] She “tried to avoid the bright lights of officialdom and to concentrate on making a home of Gracie Mansion.”[3]

Mrs. Wagner’s brainchild, the namesake Susan E. Wagner Wing, captures the memory to which she likely aspired and renders her a consistent presence in the residence. Mrs. Wagner envisioned a space “separated from Gracie Mansion” that could still provide the forum for “official functions.”[4] The private donation-driven wing – where guests enter today – does just that.[5] Just like the built environment for which she advocated, Mrs. Wagner was at once a private spouse who aimed to “lessen the strain” on the mayor and a public figure whom even a stranger in her funeral chapel respected as, above all, “such a nice person.”[6] Her portrait captures this spirit.


Gold framed oil painting of Susan E. Wagner.

Image courtesy of Lydia-Rose Aigbedion

Mrs. Wagner cherished privacy, a value that animated her proposal for the new wing in the mayoral residence. Likewise, the original placement of her portrait high above a chest in the ballroom frustrated interaction between its subject and its viewers.[7]A dab of white paint above and to the right of each of Mrs. Wagner’s black pupils lends life to her eyes. However, the portrait’s height frustrated eye contact between the painted figure and visitors milling in the ballroom. By nestling the portrait in that space, the Conservancy reinforced the new wing’s purpose as a place that would protect its residents from an oppressive gaze. Architecture transformed into a shield – just as Mrs. Wagner hoped.

The composition itself unites Mrs. Wagner with her surroundings, which we the viewers might interpret as Gracie Mansion itself. Light blue embraces the entire frame. The painter’s technique suggests the intentionality of this consistency. Pogany brushed only thin strokes of white in Mrs. Wagner’s skirt, communicating creases and, possibly, a light source above the seated figure. This care with the brush preserves the harmony lent by the prevailing hue. Although perhaps symptomatic of age or light exposure, greater density of white paint around Mrs. Wagner’s left shoulder blurs her body into the background of the canvas.

Pogany relaxed the crisp vertical and horizontal axes that portraits of leading figures often prioritize. This gestures toward the private sphere that Mrs. Wagner worked to preserve for her family. Indeed, in this composition, Mrs. Wagner loosens her posture and leans to the right. In an otherwise minimalistic composition, Pogany reserved detail work for the bodice of Mrs. Wagner’s dress. The paint appears to thicken to communicate three-dimensional ornamentation. This emphasis on this decorative center of both the garment and the composition emphasizes that Mrs. Wagner is not sitting upright as one might imagine that she would at a public function.

Artists since the Classical era reserved triangles to reinforce linearity and, metaphorically, control. However, here, that shape suggests the “leisure” at Gracie Mansion that Mrs. Wagner sought to preserve for the mayor and their family.[8] It reminds a viewer that the First Lady of New York City can take a seat and rest. Pogany softened the triangle that defines the crown of Mrs. Wagner’s hairstyle. He again suggested relaxation of portraits’ traditional severity by conveying the looseness of the fingers of her right hand. With swipes of brown paint, he defined each finger as a distinct rectangle. Mrs. Wagner’s right arm crooks at a ninety-degree angle, forming a triangle of negative space between her right arm and right side. The slightly curved line that communicates the crook in her arm may draw a viewer’s attention as one of the darkest swipes of paint in the composition (a few shades darker than that used for her coiffed hair). With this attention to palate and geometry, Pogany guides a viewer’s eye down to the sofa beneath his subject. He brushed darker paint beneath Mrs. Wagner’s right wrist, creating both a shadow and a signpost for the sofa. Strikingly, the sofa’s arm curls into a neat, circular design that resembles the sides of Mrs. Wagner’s hairstyle, further uniting her with iconography of the residence. These stylistic choices preserve in paint Mrs. Wagner’s vision for the residence; its furniture both facilitates public gatherings and offers a respite for its residents.

While this portrait did not originally place subject and viewer in conversation, it did preserve a conversation that Mrs. Wagner herself led in the City of New York – the conversation between a public figure and her physical space. Indeed, this legacy encouraged newspaper headlines such as “Wagner’s 2d Wife Defends First on Mansion’s Upkeep.”[9] Upon visiting the estate following Mayor Lindsay’s election, the Lindsays scoffed at the grounds as “rundown and dusty.”[10] Mayor Wagner’s second wife, Barbara Cavanaugh, rushed to interject, “Susan was ill for a year before she died – how was she going to worry about curtains and carpets?”[11]

The COVID-19 pandemic transformed the call for private space that Mrs. Wagner encouraged in the 1960s. Like the residents, the Conservancy appreciates the flexible floorplan that Mrs. Wagner inspired.


Emily Gruber
Writer, Researcher, and Docent for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
December 2021

[1] Thomas W. Ennis, “The Susan Wagner Wing Is Opened at Gracie Mansion,” New York Times, September 28, 1966.

[2] “Susan Wagner,” New York Times, March 8, 1964.

[3] “Susan Wagner,” New York Times, March 8, 1964.

[4] Thomas W. Ennis, “The Susan Wagner Wing Is Opened at Gracie Mansion,” New York Times, September 28, 1966.

[5] Thomas W. Ennis, “The Susan Wagner Wing Is Opened at Gracie Mansion,” New York Times, September 28, 1966.

[6] “Susan Wagner,” New York Times, March 8, 1964.

[7] Thomas W. Ennis, “The Susan Wagner Wing Is Opened at Gracie Mansion,” New York Times, September 28, 1966.

[8] “Susan Wagner,” New York Times, March 8, 1964.

[9] “Wagner’s 2d Wife Defends First on Mansion’s Upkeep,” New York Times, August 12, 1966.

[10] “Wagner’s 2d Wife Defends First on Mansion’s Upkeep,” New York Times, August 12, 1966.

[11] “Wagner’s 2d Wife Defends First on Mansion’s Upkeep,” New York Times, August 12, 1966.


[1] “Susan Wagner,” New York Times, March 8, 1964.

[2] “Susan Wagner,” New York Times, March 8, 1964.

Drawing out Contrasts in New York City’s One-Hundredth Mayor


At times, an artist may, by choice or by chance, tuck messages in their chosen medium. Samuel Johnson Woolf’s drawing (ca. 1947) of Mayor William O’Dwyer is one such example.[1] With charcoal and tempera/Chinese white on paper (25 5/8” x 19 ¾”), Woolf captured New York City’s one-hundredth mayor in shades of black and white. Upon a closer look, these visual contrasts illustrate how Mayor O’Dwyer’s “career in high office in New York was full of paradox.”[2]

Entering office on January 1, 1946 as New York’s first postwar mayor, O’Dwyer brought skills that he had exercised in his prior positions. For example, this mayor who arrived in the United States “with $23.35 in his pocket” also “gave the city its first billion-dollar budget.”[3] He picked up on “the problems of building schools, hospitals and transportation facilities” that World War II had displaced from a mayor’s priorities.[4] And he “created the office of the City Construction Coordinator and gave the job to Robert Moses.”[5]

By ensuring that the drawing conveyed animation, Woolf captured the mayor’s reputation for implementing such a robust agenda as a leader who “in all…moved with decisiveness and precision.”[6] As in Classical imagery, in this portrait, movement of body communicates movement of mind. Such a goal appears in Woolf’s decisions not to apply charcoal and tempera to paper. For example, a triangle of white appears beneath Mayor O’Dwyer’s right arm. This negative space lifts the mayor’s elbow off the table’s surface, signaling motion. This gesture conveys that the mayor who had “smashed” the gang “Murder, Inc.” during his tenure as Kings County District Attorney responded to “municipal crises” with the same verve.[7]

The prominence of Mayor O’Dwyer’s right hand evokes the centrality of hands in religious art (see, e.g., Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam), and thereby preserves an element of the mayor’s biography. Woolf emphasized the mayor’s hand through the thick shading of black between the thumb and pointer finger. This shading suggests a palm and, by extent, depth. Woolf even foreshortened the mayor’s right thumb; it points toward the viewer, lending three-dimensionality to the drawing. This prominence of O’Dwyer’s hand offers a reminder that the mayor considered joining the priesthood. Woolf may have included this detail because, while Mayor O’Dwyer set aside his studies for the priesthood, he communicated his “sympathies” and concerns for others abundantly[8] – a characteristic that earned New Yorkers’ support.[9] These qualities were of particular note in the City, as New Yorkers appreciated the change from the “hurly-burly” of O’Dwyer’s predecessor, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.[10]

But, as promised above, such a record of achievement and compassion evolved into a legacy of contrasts. Despite Mayor O’Dwyer’s reelection win, a revelation by the District Attorney that a bookmaker named Harry Gross had funneled money to the mayor, among others, disrupted his victory.[11] While the mayor denied involvement in the fraud scheme, he resigned.[12] Here, Woolf positioned his subject in such a way that fortuitously memorialized that contrast in reputation. To be sure, Woolf drew this portrait in approximately 1947, three years prior to O’Dwyer’s resignation. With the benefit of hindsight, however, a viewer may note that a profile – as the mayor is depicted here – is, quite literally, one sided. As the New York Times reported, “whispers that the Mayor’s record was being investigated cast a shadow over Gracie Mansion,”[13] and Woolf’s medium and its strokes of greyish hues evoke literal and metaphorical shadow.

Additionally, Woolf’s imprecision with space in the portrait preserves the significance of Mayor O’Dwyer’s evolving geographic ties. While Mayor O’Dwyer solidified his career in Gotham as he “rose from New York policeman to New York Mayor” and established a permanent United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, he both began and concluded his life in geographic transition.[14] Indeed, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller emphasized that Mayor O’Dwyer’s decision to move from Ireland to the United States “provide[d] another example of the opportunity still provided in this land of freedom.”[15] Importantly, the mayor also appreciated geography as strategy. He sought to shield himself from scrutiny upon his mayoral resignation by relocating; he accepted a position as Ambassador to Mexico (1950-1952),[16] and he “was afraid to return to New York for fear that he would be investigated again.”[17]

Accordingly, Woolf’s artistic gestures placed the mayor in the flexible geography that both defined his life and helped him attempt to preserve his legacy amidst “paradox.”[18] The drawing offers no spatial background and, therefore, no definite location. The sole suggestion of a setting emerges in two dark swipes of swipes of charcoal and tempera in the lower left quadrant of the page. These swipes form an oblique angle, suggesting a table’s corner. Two wispy lines disrupt the linearity of the table and resemble an error rather than an attempt to capture a table’s surface on paper. Through this drawing, Mayor O’Dwyer can be remembered in the geographic uncertainty that he ultimately valued.

Shifting our perspective, the autographs beneath the subject accentuate the drawing’s messaging. While Woolf often used signatures to “further document the fact that almost all of his portraits were executed from life,” the mayor’s autograph here goes a step further in bringing personality into the piece.[19] Once again, Mayor O’Dwyer becomes a study in contrasts. On a logistics front, Mayor O’Dwyer complies with an artist’s proclivity to request an autograph. The three smudged lines beneath the table also resemble the lively form of a signature, uniting artist and subject. At the same time, however, Mayor O’Dwyer quite literally aligned the gesture with his own choices. He signed his name on a slant so that it runs parallel to his torso; that torso leans forward, presumably in the conversation that he was known to enjoy.[20]

Finally, the very placement of the portrait tells a story of Gracie Mansion. In 1974, the New York Times reported that Daniel Greene’s oil painting of Mayor O’Dwyer – both commissioned and funded by the O’Dwyer family – would be displayed in City Hall with portraits of mayors past.[21] While Gracie Mansion provided the venue for an unveiling reception attended by Mayor Abraham Beame and Robert Moses, it was not deemed the appropriate home for that formal portrait.[22] As both a home and an office, Gracie Mansion is itself multisided. And New York City’s one-hundredth mayor seemed to understand Gracie Mansion as such. When he departed his “two-story semi-detached stucco and brick structure in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn,” for Gracie Mansion, he recognized it as a personal residence.[23] He also, for example, would “confer[] with city officials” at Gracie Mansion before heading for City Hall at approximately 1:45 P.M. [24] Accordingly, it is fitting that Gracie Mansion – a building that houses both the professional and the personal – should be home to a portrait that draws out the varied and contrasting elements of a mayor’s legacy.


Emily Gruber
Writer, Researcher, and Docent for the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
August 2022


[1] “Portrait of Mayor William O’Dwyer, a drawing by Samuel Johnson Woolf, New York, ca. 1947,” Gracie Mansion Conservancy,

[2] “Former Mayor O’Dwyer Dead; Prosecuted Murderer, Inc., Gant; Onetime Policeman Quit City Hall in ’50 During Scandal Over Bookie Payoffs,” New York Times, November 25, 1964.

[3] “Former Mayor O’Dwyer Dead; Prosecuted Murderer, Inc., Gant; Onetime Policeman Quit City Hall in ’50 During Scandal Over Bookie Payoffs,” New York Times, November 25, 1964.

[4] “Former Mayor O’Dwyer Dead; Prosecuted Murderer, Inc., Gant; Onetime Policeman Quit City Hall in ’50 During Scandal Over Bookie Payoffs,” New York Times, November 25, 1964.

[5] “Former Mayor O’Dwyer Dead; Prosecuted Murderer, Inc., Gant; Onetime Policeman Quit City Hall in ’50 During Scandal Over Bookie Payoffs,” New York Times, November 25, 1964.

[6] “Former Mayor O’Dwyer Dead; Prosecuted Murderer, Inc., Gant; Onetime Policeman Quit City Hall in ’50 During Scandal Over Bookie Payoffs,” New York Times, November 25, 1964.

[7] “Former Mayor O’Dwyer Dead; Prosecuted Murderer, Inc., Gant; Onetime Policeman Quit City Hall in ’50 During Scandal Over Bookie Payoffs,” New York Times, November 25, 1964.

[8] “Mayor O’Dwyer’s Decision,” New York Times, August 16, 1950.

[9] “Former Mayor O’Dwyer Dead; Prosecuted Murderer, Inc., Gant; Onetime Policeman Quit City Hall in ’50 During Scandal Over Bookie Payoffs,” New York Times, November 25, 1964.

[10] “Former Mayor O’Dwyer Dead; Prosecuted Murderer, Inc., Gant; Onetime Policeman Quit City Hall in ’50 During Scandal Over Bookie Payoffs,” New York Times, November 25, 1964.

[11] “Former Mayor O’Dwyer Dead; Prosecuted Murderer, Inc., Gant; Onetime Policeman Quit City Hall in ’50 During Scandal Over Bookie Payoffs,” New York Times, November 25, 1964.

[12] “Mayor O’Dwyer’s Decision,” New York Times, August 16, 1950.

[13] “Former Mayor O’Dwyer Dead; Prosecuted Murderer, Inc., Gant; Onetime Policeman Quit City Hall in ’50 During Scandal Over Bookie Payoffs,” New York Times, November 25, 1964.

[14] “Former Mayor O’Dwyer Dead; Prosecuted Murderer, Inc., Gant; Onetime Policeman Quit City Hall in ’50 During Scandal Over Bookie Payoffs,” New York Times, November 25, 1964.

[15] “Former Mayor O’Dwyer Dead; Prosecuted Murderer, Inc., Gant; Onetime Policeman Quit City Hall in ’50 During Scandal Over Bookie Payoffs,” New York Times, November 25, 1964.

[16] “Gracie Mansion Gets Portrait of O’Dwyer,” New York Times, December 24, 1974.

[17] “Former Mayor O’Dwyer Dead; Prosecuted Murderer, Inc., Gant; Onetime Policeman Quit City Hall in ’50 During Scandal Over Bookie Payoffs,” New York Times, November 25, 1964.

[18] “Former Mayor O’Dwyer Dead; Prosecuted Murderer, Inc., Gant; Onetime Policeman Quit City Hall in ’50 During Scandal Over Bookie Payoffs,” New York Times, November 25, 1964.

[19] “Permanent Collection,” Gracie Mansion Conservancy, r

[20] “Former Mayor O’Dwyer Dead; Prosecuted Murderer, Inc., Gant; Onetime Policeman Quit City Hall in ’50 During Scandal Over Bookie Payoffs,” New York Times, November 25, 1964.

[21] “Gracie Mansion Gets Portrait of O’Dwyer,” New York Times, December 24, 1974.

[22] “Gracie Mansion Gets Portrait of O’Dwyer,” New York Times, December 24, 1974.

[23] “O’Dwyer Family Moves into the Gracie Mansion,” New York Times, January 29, 1946.

[24] “Mayor O’Dwyer Congratulated on his Birthday,” New York Times, July 12, 1950.

Mayor La Guardia in Drawing and in Dialogue


Charcoal drawing of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia at city hall. Mayor La Guardia is hunched over his fiercely writing. A portrait hangs in the back ground.

Courtesy of Lydia-Rose Aigbedion, 2021

“To him New York is a large small town”:[1]
Mayor La Guardia in Drawing and in Dialogue

“This great city of huge spaces that are too small, of millions of little people who are really big.”[2]

Printed in the New York Times, this reflection by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia captures the comforting duet of contrasts that is New York City. This place is “huge,” and it is “small.”[3] It makes the “little” feel “big.”[4] This spirit extends into a drawing (32.5” x 26.5”) printed alongside that Times profile and produced by the article’s author, Samuel Johnson Woolf.[5] That drawing is Fiorello La Guardia at his Desk at City Hall (ca. 1935). When we consider the art in conversation with the article, we appreciate power in conversation with the press. And we recognize that not all stories—here, as told through charcoal and tempera—are as they initially appear.[6] Let’s begin.

 The Portrait and the Paper

The position of Woolf’s drawing on the New York Times spread sends a message. The drawing dominates roughly half of the first of this two-page, September 30, 1945 interview with La Guardia as he rounded the bend toward his December 31 mayoral finale. Just beneath the article’s subtitle, the image pushes the copy to the right, left, and below to make way for the sprawling representation of the “Little Flower.” Mayor La Guardia thus emerges at the center of the page, an enactment of his role as the City’s centerpiece.

In tandem with his role as the City’s anchor, Mayor La Guardia looked outward. And for Mayor La Guardia, “outward” meant the people. He hustled for them because, in his words, “only a well-fed, well-housed, well-schooled people can enjoy the blessings of liberty.”

With this background in mind, the caption beneath the drawing announces the aforementioned spirit of absurdity characteristic of the City. The caption reads, “[i]n the history of our city no Mayor has been closer to the people.”[7] Here, however, the mayor sits solo. Aside from the looming portrait of President Monroe—more on that later—“the people” are absent.[8]

A closer look at the New York Times page helps us make sense of this seeming disparity. Just as Mayor La Guardia himself looked outward, Woolf’s dark, paint-like shading of La Guardia’s jacket encourages a viewer to cast her gaze beyond the reprinted drawing. More specifically, the dark shading is picked up by the Times’s bolded, enlarged letters—I, O, T, and A—that introduce new paragraphs in the article. Therefore, when we place the drawing and article in dialogue, Mayor La Guardia appears to respect the words written by Woolf as he handwrites his own.

Further, upon reading Woolf’s article, one may reconsider an interpretation of the placement and scale of the reprinted drawing as domineering. As Woolf noted, Mayor La Guardia, “dashed to fires, visited building projects as they grew, personally [went] after racketters, lambasted chiselers.”[9] In other words, he was in the thick of the people of New York; “[t]welve years” in the Mayor’s Office had “not dulled his interest in the welfare of the people.”[10] And, here, he is, visually, in the thick of the article in which he—and Woolf—talk about “Our Town.”[11]

A Closer Look

While known for energy and speech, here, Woolf depicts Mayor La Guardia as seated and silent. This incongruity animates our curiosity. And it drives us to look closer at the shading and the lines with which Woolf froze an image of a mayor in motion. But, first, to the composition itself.

Woolf constructed a vertical axis for the drawing that runs down the center of the piece. It divides the piece into two rectangles, as accentuated by the curved molding on the right edge of the floor-to-ceiling window. This axis is emphasized by the dark shading atop the folded flag. This thick darkness draws a viewer’s eye to the blazers of Mayor La Guardia and President Monroe. In this way, Woolf orchestrates visual unity between the flag and two leaders; and, in doing so, he celebrates the governance of New York City as interlocked with the governance of the nation. It is also notable that if one were to draw lines between these three elements—flag, mayor, president—it would construct a triangle, a shape that, in classical art, signaled strength and stability of body and mind.

With this axis established, roughly equal space falls to the interior office and to the window view. Between generously shaded windowpanes, Woolf preserved the landscape. Narrow lines suggest tree trunks, and bending lines—resembling lines drawn by a trembling hand—suggest branches, bare and brittle in a New York winter chill. Fainter swipes of charcoal (evoking watercolor) offer depth, indicating that one tree is at a distance. Additionally, Woolf communicates an edifice with rectangular and square smudges as windows on a building a few paces in the distance. As a whole, the floor-to-ceiling window functions like negative space in a sculpture; it insists upon depth and creates space for imagination. With this “split-screen” of office and outside world, Woolf communicates that he drew the image from real life and suggests that Mayor La Guardia, quite literally, made room for the people beyond the bureaucracy.

The portrait of President Monroe on the office wall transitions us from the drawing’s composition to its characters. Monroe and Mayor La Guardia shared a reputation for “ambition and energy.”[12] President Monroe, the nation’s fifth leader (1817-1825) and known as the final one from the “Founding Father” ranks.[13] Known for making “unusually strong cabinet choices” and lending both his strategy and his name to the “Monroe Doctrine,” this president helps tell the mayor’s story through both counterpoints and continuity. In his framed portrait, President Monroe meets a viewer’s gaze, his head aligned with the composition’s axis. This posture contrasts with that of Mayor La Guardia. While President Monroe’s head shares a perpendicular axis with his neck, Mayor La Guardia’s head crooks off the central axis. Woolf sketched a deep, if small, half-circle to announce the mayor’s chin, reinforcing his pose—one that quite literally cast his gaze toward his constituents. Strength for this interpretation can be found in Woolf’s words in the New York Times article that he juxtaposed to the drawing. There, Woolf quoted Mayor La Guardia:

They should see the letters I get from women thanking me for my recipes, from children who write how much happier their lives are now that their fathers can’t throw their money away on crooked gambling games and from many others who write to me about what I say over the air.[14]

Even if the mayor were not penning a response to New Yorkers’ correspondence—though, from the above quote, it seems probable—he was most likely writing in fulfillment of official duties. Therefore, unlike President Monroe, who posed in service of portraiture, Mayor La Guardia posed in service of the people. Indeed, we might not even call it a “pose,” but rather a “gesture.” These divergences align with Mayor La Guardia’s urgency for forward-motion, for momentum from the past into a modern future. While President Monroe brokered foreign relations as Minister to France,”[15] Mayor La Guardia exclaimed,

“Paris is no longer the arbiter of American fashions. They are created in our town.”[16]
“Someone once said that when good Americans die they go to Paris.”[17]

Mayor La Guardia turned away—here, quite literally—from Europe and toward Gotham.

This perspective buoys the image’s absurdity and, thus, its accuracy. When understood as a still image, this drawing is devoid of Mayor La Guardia’s reputation for “whirring away at a tremendous rate of speed, every cylinder hitting.”[18] But Woolf was certain to pack motion into the moment. In addition to the definition in Mayor La Guardia’s chin, Woolf offers a view of only one of Mayor La Guardia’s eyes; the absence of the other reinforces the tilt of his head toward his task and his loyalty to the city he served.

Movement also emerges through the mayor’s hands, which, capture what he noted as the “two cardinal virtues” of the City: “‘Patience and Fortitude.’”[19] First, while Woolf swiped grey-ish charcoal along the desk’s edges to suggest open space below, he does not render the mayor’s legs. The hands are thus the mayor’s only viewable limbs. For emphasis, Woolf focused on precision with lines and shading to convince a viewer of two hands in motion. As for the mayor’s right hand, holding the pen, Woolf drew four dark lines of decreasing length to indicate finger-proportionality. By placing two straight lines at an obtuse angle, Woolf suggested that the mayor bent his pointer finger to glide the pen over the page. As for the mayor’s left hand, Woolf drew short, light lines on his pointer and middle fingers to suggest knuckles, and, by extent, fingers animated in the service of holding the paper while he wrote.

It is also notable that the lack of shading on the majority of the mayor’s right hand, on the paper on which he writes, and on the pen itself evokes the nearly white scene outside the window. This visual unification of the mayor’s message and the community beyond his office captures his reputation as one who “kept the door of his office, as well as his ears, open to hear [New Yorkers’] problems and complaints.”[20]

The desk itself forwards this message. As Mayor La Guardia looked ahead to days beyond this office, Woolf placed emphasis on that furniture. He tracked the mayor’s location as he spoke, noting, “suddenly he got up and went to the tall window behind his desk” and, later, “back at his desk he continued.”[21]

While the desk and the responsibility it represents are central to his orbit, Woolf’s divided composition—discussed above—aligns with Mayor La Guardia’s understanding of that desk as not in any way static or confined to the office walls. The desk, too, presents absurdity; it is both grounded on the floor and a path out of doors. Indeed, Woolf ensures that the desk runs off the canvas with swirling, vivacious lines that loop downward toward the left-hand corner of the composition. This indicates, by metonymy, the to-do list that this mayor who made “their problems more a part of his job” amassed.[22] But, when he “went to the tall window behind his desk,” he welcomed his audience to “see the Woolworth Building towering above St. Paul’s . . . Both are typical of the City. The old church is part of the foundation on which this town was built. The Woolworth Building is evidence of that growth.”[23] And this composition is thus evidence that this mayor, in his own words, would “not lost interest in my city. I may not be in office, but if anything goes wrong, I’ll always find a soap box.”[24]

This desk itself has morphed into a personality in New York City history. The 6’2” Mayor Ed Koch noted, “When I sat at the desk, I couldn’t get my knees under it.”[25] And, more recently, Mayor Bill De Blasio was known to have “dust[ed] off La Guardia’s desk” for his own use.[26]

A Point of Connection

This spirit of contrast, of absurdity, is, I think, a unifier for New Yorkers. It is a spirit that springs only from lived experience, from a personal history of navigating the chaotic order of the grid, of finding hush in the horns, of feeling community among strangers. Mayor La Guardia lived this. He knew New York’s “headaches, its heartaches and its joys”—and he likely knew that they were not all that different.[27] We hope that you visit this city to understand for yourself how it can offer “huge spaces that are too small” and welcome “millions of little people who are really big.”[28] And we hope that you pay a visit to Gracie Mansion while you’re here.

Emily Gruber
Contributing Writer and Researcher, Gracie Mansion Conservancy
January 2023

[1] S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September, 30, 1945.
[2] S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September, 30, 1945.
[3] S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September, 30, 1945.
[4] S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September, 30, 1945.
[5] Gracie Mansion Conservancy, “Fiorello La Guardia at his Desk at City Hall a drawing by Samuel Johnson Woolf, New York, ca. 1935,” Gracie Mansion Conservancy, Accessed December 29, 2022,
[6] Gracie Mansion Conservancy, “Fiorello La Guardia at his Desk at City Hall a drawing by Samuel Johnson Woolf, New York, ca. 1935,” Gracie Mansion Conservancy, Accessed December 29, 2022,
[7] S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September, 30, 1945.
[8] S.J Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September 30, 1945.
[9] S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September, 30, 1945.
[10] S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September 30, 1945.
[11] S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September, 30, 1945.
[12] “James Monroe: The 5th President of the United States,” The White House, Accessed December 30, 2022,
[13] “James Monroe: The 5th President of the United States,” The White House, Accessed December 30, 2022,

[14] S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September, 30, 1945.

[15] “James Monroe: The 5th President of the United States,” The White House, Accessed December 30, 2022,
[16] S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September, 30, 1945.
[17] S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September, 30, 1945.
[18] Karl Schriftgiesser, “Portrait of a Mayor: Fiorello La Guardia,” Atlantic, 1938.
[19] S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September, 30, 1945.
[20] S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September, 30, 1945.
[21] S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September, 30, 1945.
[22] Emphasis added. S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September, 30, 1945.
[23] S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September, 30, 1945.
[24] S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September, 30, 1945.
[25] Azi Paybarah, “De Blasio dusts off La Guardia’s desk,” Politico, January 2, 2014.
[26] Azi Paybarah, “De Blasio dusts off La Guardia’s desk,” Politico, January 2, 2014.
[27] S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September, 30, 1945.
[28] S.J. Woolf, “The Mayor Talks About Our Town,” New York Times, September 30, 1945.

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