Monday, January 24, 2011

The 1799 Gracie Mansion

photo by City Hall Photo Unit
Jacob Walton’s 1770 country estate, Belview, sat on a high knoll overlooking the East River. It was ideally located for commanding river views and cooling summer breezes. It was also a spot George Washington deemed logistically ideal for defense. In 1776 the house and grounds were appropriated and a small fort erected with nine guns. On September 15 of that year, British battleships bombarded the property, completely destroying the house. The Americans retreated and the English used the property as an army encampment until November 1783, after which the estate sat neglected.


George Bancker's May 1774 drawing of Belview "Seat of Jacob Walton, Esqr, at Horn's Hook near the City of New York in North America" - NYPL Collection
In 1793 Scottish-born shipping merchant Archibald Gracie moved to New York. Before long he was wealthy, owning the largest fleet of merchant ships in New York. He purchased the large area of land from Walton’s heirs in 1798 and began erecting his gracious summer home, most likely using the existing foundations of the ruined Belview.

The Gracies would have esteemed neighbors. Not far away was the country seat of John Jacob Astor, as well as the homes of the Rhinelanders, the Lawrences, Nathaniel Prime, Commodore Chauncey and Richard Riker.

While the AIA Guide to New York attributes the design to architect Ezra Weeks, some historians feel it may have been the work of John McComb, Jr. who designed City Hall and whose Hamilton Grange, the home of Alexander Hamilton, is strikingly similar to Gracie’s.
Completed in 1799, the elegant home was surrounded by commodious porch on both levels that caught the refreshing river breezes. Chinese Chippendale-style railings ran along the upper porch and around the roofline. The Gracies used the mansion as a summer residence and hosted lavish entertainments. The tall windows of the first floor slid ingeniously into the walls creating additional doorways so guests could easily mingle inside and out and cool night air could circulate throughout the home.

Gracie’s guest lists included the likes of Josiah Quincy, James Fenimore Cooper, John Quincy Adams, and DeWitt Clinton. Josian Quincy was entertained at dinner in 1805, along with Judge Pendleton, Oliver Wolcott (whose daughter William Gracie, the eldest son, would marry) and Dr. Hosack. Quincy wrote of the evening, “The shores of Long Island, full of cultivated prospects and interspersed with elegant country seats, bound the distant view. The mansion is elegant in the modern style and the grounds laid out in taste with gardens.”

The foyar as it appears today with exquisite faux-marble painted floors.  Photo The Gracie Mansion Conservancy
Irving wrote in January 1813 that “Their country place was one of my strongholds last summer. It is a charming, warm-hearted family and the old gentleman has the soul of a prince.” When the exiled Louis Philippe came to New York, Mrs. Gracie sent an invitation to dine. According to Brentano’s 1907 “Old Buildings of New York,” “The carriage and four were sent to town to bring the royal visitor, and when he arrived the family were assembled to receive him. One of the little girls exclaimed aloud, ‘This is not the king, he has no crown on his head,’ at which the guest laughed good-naturedly and said: ‘In these days, kings are satisfied with wearing their heads without crowns.’”

In 1810 or 1811 an architecturally compatible addition was added to the house.

Unfortunately, the War of 1812 dealt a crippling blow to Gracie’s finances and in 1823 he was forced to sell his estate to Joseph Foulke for $17,000; although at one time it had been valued at $60,000. Foulke, originally from New Jersey, had amassed a fortune through his successful shipping commission business.

The Foulkes lived in the mansion until 1857 when it was sold to Noah Wheaton and, after Wheaton’s death in 1896, it was appropriated by the City of New York which used the surrounding 11 acres as East River Park; renamed Carl Schurz Park in 1910.

photo NYPL Collection
Archibald Gracie’s elegant home, once the setting for glittering parties and royal guests, was now used as public toilets and an ice-cream stand. In 1922, however, socialite Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer changed all that. Mrs. Van Rensselaer was already well-known for her interest in New York history and an early crusader for historic preservation, but she was also directly descended from Archibald Gracie. Through her efforts a bill was introduced in the state legislature to give custody of the house to the Patriotic New Yorkers, of which she was president.

Mrs. Van Rensselaer told The New York Times, “our intention is not only to preserve the mansion for future years, but to make it a museum of early New York household conditions. During its best days the Gracie house was one of the finest and best known country residences in the city.”

The museum, which opened in 1924, was the beginning of the Museum of the City of New York and when new facilities were built for it on 5th Avenue1936, the Park Department ran the Gracie House as a house museum.
Gracie Mansion as a house museum 1939 - NYPL Collection
It was Parks Commissioner Robert Moses who convinced the City to utilize Gracie Mansion as the official residence of the Mayor and, after renovations and problems (The Times reported on April 6, 1942 of inadequate appropriations and priorities of wartime construction materials), Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia moved into the mansion in 1942.

Since then the elegant Federal mansion has functioned as home to mayors and entertainment venue for visiting dignitaries. When Susan E. Wagner, wife of Mayor Robert Wagner, suggested an addition to the mansion in 1964 to better accommodate state functions, critics were alarmed. Architect Mott B. Schmidt (who, born in 1899, had designed homes for the Vanderbilts, Morgans and Rockefellers) submitted his first proposal that year, The New York Times said it “had all the charm and suitability of a suburban garage.”
Early 20th Century aerial photo showing the high location near the river that attracted Archibald Gracie - NYPL Collection
 A year later his revised plans were better-received, The Times saying “this year’s revised design is notable for its scholarly and appropriate good taste.” The Susan E. Wagner Wing opened in 1966, including a ballroom and two additional rooms.

A major, three-year restoration was begun in 1881 and another restoration in 2002.

1 comment:

  1. love an architect that designs the windows as sliding doors so that they can be opened to the porch outside and guests can meander outside...
    have a great day..
    maureen

    ReplyDelete