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's Bicycle

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

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

The picture shows what she captured: a sculpture by artist Miguel Luciano ironically called Porto Rican Cotton Picker. The sculpture 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.

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.

Luciano spoke about the piece and its inspiration at the February opening of the CATALYST: Art and Social Justice exhibition. He described the hard work of California farmer, Felícitas Méndez, who was a plaintiff in a landmark 1945 desegregation 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 to lease and run a farm in Westminster, CA in 1943. This cropland had suddenly become available with the wartime internment of the Japanese American owners: the Munemitsu family.

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

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

Bullseye: The Ballroom's Federal Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New docent volunteers are welcome too!

Theresa LaSalle 
Docent at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
April 2020


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
April 2020

Keith Haring’s Untitled Chicken-Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dyan Cutro
Docent at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
April 2020

Hidden in Plain Sight: Mantels and Their Tales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
April 2020

Eleanor Roosevelt by Penelope Jencks

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

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1948


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going to Work by Perla de Leon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop Telling Women to Smile by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cup by Elizabeth Colomba

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

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

Ms. Columba 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. Columba has summarized it best, “The Cup is an allegory of the oppression of women and black women adopting the story of Hagar.”

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

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

Mary Reynolds
Docent Guide at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/11 Through Young Eyes

Muslims were dehumanized, 2001

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

Firehouses were in mourning. Entire companies had perished, 2001

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

And people still miss the Twin Towers, 2001

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

Missing signs were posted everywhere, 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drawings from Ground Zero by John Coburn

Awaiting Our Brother’s Return by John Coburn, 2001

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

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

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

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

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

Pierre, Juliette, And Euphemia Toussaint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theresa LaSalle
Docent Guide at the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Statuette of Fiorello LaGuardia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Gunther
Executive Director of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy
May 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kim Loo Sisters by Leslie 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.

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

Vortex to Hover by Kaveri Raina

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

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

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

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

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

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

The year coming promises renewed attention.

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