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Gracie Mansion

Gracie Mansion

88th Street and East End Avenue
New York, NY 10028
212 570 4751
nyc.gov
Established: 1799

Many New Yorkers recognize Gracie Mansion as the mayor’s residence, but few know that the first floor functions as a museum, open to the public on Tuesdays. On a beautiful spring day in 2016, I was invited to walk through Gracie Mansion with Paul Gunther, the Director of the House, and Liz Doyle, the Head of Marketing. They took me on a whirlwind tour of the house’s history and educated me on the efforts of Chirlane McCray, Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s wife, who is responsible for the reinstallation of the mansion’s official rooms.

Each room that I visited with Paul, Liz, and the Manhattan Sideways team was specially curated to celebrate the year 1799 in a project called “Windows on the City: Looking out at Gracie’s New York.” 1799 is the year when Archibald Gracie, a successful merchant of Scottish ancestry, had the mansion built as a retreat from the city, which at the time did not extend above Canal Street. As Paul put it, “This was their summer home, their Hamptons.” The house stands on a spot that had been used during the American Revolutionary War as a strategic location, due to its position overlooking the East River. Gracie, who was a staunch federalist, was friends with Alexander Hamilton, who called a meeting at Gracie Mansion that culminated in the creation of what would become the New York Post.

The house remained in private hands for almost a century, until it was seized by the City of New York in 1896 for non-payment of taxes. The mansion then served many purposes, including providing public restrooms, a concession stand, and the first location for the Museum of the City of New York. In 1942, Robert Moses convinced the city to use the Mansion as a residence for the mayor. The first mayor to live in the house was Fiorello H. Laguardia during the Second World War.

Gracie Mansion’s personal savior was Edward Koch, who established the Gracie Mansion Conservancy in 1981. By that point, the house had become slightly dilapidated and, over time, much of the historical aspects had disappeared. Koch went about restoring his home to how it might have looked during its federal beginnings. Paul explained that Koch “had the Jackie Kennedy motive,” because in the same way that she made the White House “correct” by reconstructing it to resemble how it might have once looked during its glory days, Koch revived the residence to become what Laguardia originally called “the Little White House.”

The new developments at the mansion over the past few years are credited to Chirlane McCray. Her work, in Paul’s words, represents a perfect “balance of respect and change.” It was her idea to focus on the year that the mansion was built and to draw attention to the extraordinary diversity that was present in the city at that time. According to Paul, the curated decorations display “Diversity and Accuracy.” He pointed out the portraits on either side of the entrance hall. Originally, two very Anglican men hung there, but Ms. McCray had them replaced with the paintings of a well-to-do Jewish couple, Harmon Hendricks and his wife, who lived in the city in 1799. As Paul led us through what is referred to as “The Hyphen,” a hallway that connects the “Old House” to the extension that was built in 1809, he pointed to a small portrait of Pierre Toussaint, the Haitian slave-turned-philanthropist who helped fund Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and is soon to become New York’s first beatified saint. There are many other portraits of black figures on the walls, including one of Frederick Douglass, who, while not a figure from 1799, represents the rising abolitionist movement whose origins began at the end of the eighteenth century. There is even an original version of the 1799 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery on display. Other decorations include a statue of a young Irish girl, drawings of street criers, portraits of Native American chieftains, and even Chinese pottery (though there was not a large Asian population in 1799 New York, trade from China was booming, and eastern art was pouring into the city at a rapid rate). Even the depictions of cityscapes on the walls showed people of all races, colors, and walks of life. It was a beautifully curated collection that opened my eyes to the diversity that defines this city and to the intelligence of New York City’s current First Lady.