Stories and Histories

Some of Our Favorite Things

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

SILENCE = DEATH

“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 www.graciemansion.org/current-exhibit/.

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

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*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.

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

The Kim Loo Sisters by Leslie Lie

A film still from the video of The Kim Loo Sisters by Leslie Lie. © 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 Lie, 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.

PAUL GUNTHER
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.

PAUL GUNTHER
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.

PAUL GUNTHER
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.

MINA WEINER
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.

PAUL GUNTHER
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

Sources:

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.

PAUL GUNTHER
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.

PAUL GUNTHER
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

BLACKOUT is a handheld game with a scene of bombers flying over a city. The text says, “BLACKOUT/ THE BOMBING PLANES HAVE BEEN/ SIGHTED, THEY WILL ARRIVE IN EXACTLY/ TWO MINUTES, CAN YOU BLACKOUT ALL THE/ LIGHTS IN TIME TO SAVE THE TOWN”

BLACKOUT is a handheld game with a scene of bombers flying over a city. The text says, “BLACKOUT/ THE BOMBING PLANES HAVE BEEN/ SIGHTED, THEY WILL ARRIVE IN EXACTLY/ TWO MINUTES, CAN YOU BLACKOUT ALL THE/ LIGHTS IN TIME TO SAVE THE TOWN”

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.

Today…

 

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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Puerto_Rico

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 (Audubon.org) 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 (carlschurzparknyc.org), 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 Historichousetrust.org tells so much more while nycparks.org 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 graciemansion.org 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