Friday, April 16, 2010

No. 34 Gramercy Park - "The Gramercy"

In 1831 the city of New York was spreading slowly northward and Samuel B. Ruggles recognized the potential of the farmland in its eventual path.  A century earlier the city of Savannah had begun its civic plan of open squares surrounded by residences.  An advocate of open spaces, Ruggles envisioned a similar development.

He purchased swampy land from James Duane's Gramercy Farm then spent an additional $180,000 -- an incredible sum in those days -- to drain the swamp and haul away cart load after cart load of earth.  Gramercy Square was laid out -- 60 plots surrounding the central park.  In 1832 he obtained tax exempt status for the park and a year later he surrounded it with a heavy cast iron fence.  Landscaping of the park started in 1844 and shortly thereafter the refined brownstone mansions began appearing around it.

Gramercy Park in 1905 -- NYPL Collection

Ruggles' successful speculation was matched by Charles A. Gerlach who in the early 1880s got the idea for a co-op apartment house on the park -- the first cooperative apartment in the city.  His 1883 Queen-Anne style building was designed by New Jersey architect George W. DaCunha.  DaCunha incorporated elaborate floral carvings, stained glass overlights, heavy leaded and beveled glass doors and other costly finishes.  The latest in residential design, the building had to entice wealthy New Yorkers who were unused to apartment living.  Mrs. Caroline Astor, after all, derided apartment houses as "living on a shelf."

Therefore The Gramercy had no more than three spacious apartments to a floor.  The lobby was outfitted to resemble the reception areas of a Fifth Avenue mansion.  Unheard of in residential architecture, an Otis elevator served the residents.  Marketed as "French Flats" to distinguish them from the more familiar walk-up tenements, each apartment sold for $10,000 to $20,000 (a two-bedroom today is around $1.5 million).

Today The Gramercy remains a co-op apartment, having boasted over the years such residents as Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West) and James Cagney.  As they did in 1881 the owners receive a key to the Park -- the last private park in Manhattan.  The keys are numbered and kept track of and the locks are changed every October 1st.

In 1994 the co-op spent around $700,000 to finally replace the old Otis hydraulic elevator, the oldest in the City.  Despite this and other necessary updates, The Gramercy still retains its wonderful Queen Anne charm -- deeply carved brownstown abutting red brick, sharp late Victorian angles and a soaring verticality.  It is one of the many jewels of historic Gramercy Park.

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