In 1831 the city of New York was spreading slowly northward toward the former country estates of James Duane and Robert Murray. Samuel B. Ruggles recognized the potential of the farmland in its eventual path. Earlier in the century Trinity Church had developed St. John's Park--an exclusive residential enclave of brick-faced mansions girding a private, fenced park. An advocate of open spaces, Ruggles envisioned a similar development.
He purchased swampy land from James Duane's Gramercy farm (the name "Gramercy" was a corruption of Dutch words meaning roughly "crooked swamp") then spent an additional $180,000--nearly $5.4 million today--to drain the land and haul away cart load after cart load of earth. Gramercy Square was laid out--66 plots surrounding the central park. (After Ruggles successfully helped lobby the State to open Irving Place to the south and Lexington Avenue to the north that number dropped to 60.) In 1832 he obtained tax exempt status for the park and a year later he surrounded it with a heavy cast iron fence.
By the mid-1840's mansions had begun rising on three sides of the enclave. But the eastern side would be different. Around 1854 massive Gramercy Park House hotel was opened, hosting wealthy travelers. Miller's Strangers' Guide to New York City in 1866 called it "of colossal proportions...facing the delightful shrubbery of a beautiful inclosure called Gramercy Park."
|The Gramercy-Park House engulfed the southern half of the block between 20th and 21st Streets facing the park. from the collection of the New-York Historical Society|
They chose New Jersey-based architect George W. DaCunha to design The Gramercy. Completed in 1883 in the currently popular Queen Anne style, DaCunha embellished the brownstone and red brick exterior with elaborate carvings, polished granite columns, and opulent terra cotta bands. The building rose to a riot of towers, pediments and a slate tiled mansard. Potential residents would be wooed by costly materials--a profusion of stained glass, mahogany finishes, and heavy leaded and beveled glass doors. Three hydraulic Otis elevators (two for service use and one for passengers) were on the cutting edge of technology and convenience. DaCunha designed the lobby to resemble a reception hall of a private mansion.
|original source unknown|
|Above the cornice of the portico two brawny lions flank the weather-worn parapet.|
Charles A. Gerlach was pleased enough with the results to move into his building. On November 17, 1883 he explained the concept to The Record & Guide. "There are ten stories in the building, and of them six were sold to the present stockholders, leaving four stories--two upper and two lower--which are never to be sold, but are rented for the benefit of those owning the other six stories This guarantees to each stockholder and income sufficient to pay all the running expenses, as well as a small cash dividend."
And the plan was paying off. Gerlach said "Apartments in the 'Gramercy' that sold this last August for $13,000 have since been sold for $25,000 each." Rental units went for about $4,500 per year, or an astounding $58,000 per month today. An advertisement in the New-York Tribune on August 12, 1884 described "Several desirable unfurnished suites for families in this superb new and strictly first-class building."
The building filled with socially-prominent families whose names routinely appeared in the Social Register and society columns. Among the earliest were Charles L. Barstow, architect Charles I. Berg, J. Edgar Bull and his wife, the former Sarah Adams Williams, and J. L. Chapin.
|Stained glass transoms and interior shutters survive on the southern side of the building.|
Press coverage of The Gramercy's residents mostly had to do with their summer travels, receptions and weddings. But Henry Wallace Cullen found himself in a less flattering spotlight in 1903. On the night of July 21 he accompanied a friend, Charles Heaton, to cafe of the upscale Gilsey House hotel on Broadway.
That the two men were together at all was surprising. The New-York Tribune wrote "Cullen is said to come of a good family. He dresses well. Heaton's appearance was not so good."
Sitting at a table was Dr. Walter M. Fleming who had just been handed an envelope containing $200 owed to him. The doctor's counting of the bills did not go unnoticed by Heaton, who approached his table. The New-York Tribune reported "Heaton seized the envelope, it is alleged, and crunched it in his hand. Dr. Fleming seized him, but says he did not recover his money. He caught Heaton by the throat, jammed him up against the wall, and sized Cullen by the coat tails. Then he called for help."
House detective Burke rushed in and hauled all three men to the police station. The stark difference between the refined Cullen and his companion was further evidenced when Heaton was searched. Along with some papers, he "also had some pawn tickets for clothing, believed to have been his own. He had no money." Cullen seems to have been totally stunned by the incident "He did not know what became of the money, but said he had no hand in the affair and had no idea of stealing it."
|A glimpse into the entrance foyer reveals exquisite encaustic floor tiles and a profusion of stained glass, including a skylight lit by the setback behind the portico's parapet.|
Several of the tenants remained for decades. Among these were the family of Dr. William Seaman Bainbridge, including his mother, Lucy Seaman Bainbridge. The widow of the Rev Dr. William Folwell Bainbridge, she had already led a remarkable life. In 1861 she became a war nurse, sharing her army tent with Clara Barton. She later organized the Women's Department of the Brooklyn City Mission, was a staunch fighter for municipal sanitation (she once hired a boat to follow the garbage scows to prove they did not go far enough to sea for dumping), and was an organizer of the Women's Health Protective Association.
Her son was chief surgeon of the Brooklyn Naval Hospital and was recognized as "an eminent practitioner," according to the Tri-States Union in 1908 and a pioneer in cancer treatment. He and his wife, the former June W. Wheeler, had a daughter, Barbara.
Bainbridge was summoned to the apartment of another resident, stock broker Henry G. Campbell, Jr., by a frantic servant on June 26, 1917. His 40-year-old wife had been suffering depression due to continued ill health. That day she had not come out of her bedroom, spending most of it lying on the bed. The housekeeper left the apartment to get the afternoon papers, returning about a half hour later.
Entering the bedroom, she noticed blood on the pillow. Fearing Mrs. Campbell was seriously ill, she called the butler who looked closer. There was a bullet wound in Mrs. Campbell's right temple. She was still barely alive as Bainbridge rushed to the scene. The servants made "frantic efforts," according to The Sun, to reach her husband both at his office and his clubs, but it was not until he returned home for dinner that he learned of the incident. "His wife was then breathing her last," said The Sun. "When the news was broken to him Mr. Campbell collapsed."
|In 1928 nothing had changed to the venerable structure. from the collection of the New York Public Library|
|DaCunha not only included expected foliate carvings into the design...|
|but faces of Native Americans as well.|
In November 1934 Barbara Bainbridge was introduced to society at a tea-dance in the Louis Sherry Room at Sherry's. The Bainbridges still lived in The Gramercy when she was married to Angus McIntosh in the sunken garden of the family's summer home, Maple Hill Farm, in Connecticut in September 1939.
Two of the initial occupants, the unmarried sisters Ina L. and Emma Cecilia Thursby, were long-term and colorful residents. Emma was internationally famous as a concert and oratorio singer and toured internationally.
|Emma Thursby - from the collection of the Library of Congress|
By the first decade of the 20th century Emma had retired, but she and Ina entertained frequently. The New York Times later remarked "In her home in Gramercy Park [Emma] held a salon which had an Old World charm about it. In a spacious, low-ceilinged drawing room that was filled with art treasures, souvenirs, gifts from all over the world, Miss Thursby and her sister, Ina Thursby, received on Fridays. At one end of this room hung a life-size portrait of Miss Thursby by George P A. Healy, an American painter."
|This life-sized portrait of Emma Thursby hung in the women's drawing room. collection of the New-York Historical Society|
The Sun reported on one of those Friday events on February 28, 1914:
Miss Emma Thursby, at one time a famous soprano, gave a reception yesterday afternoon at her home, 34 Gramercy Park, for Miss Mary Garden of the Chicago Opera Company. Miss Enid Watkins of San Francisco sang in costume chants of the American Indians.
The Thursby apartment was the scene of a "very pretty wedding," as described by The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on July 27, 1924. The sisters' niece, Edith May Thursby, daughter of their brother Edwin Sherman Thursby, was married to C. John McNauley Pate in the drawing room. The newspaper's report of the wedding hinted that the health of the 74-year-old Emma was waning. "Only relatives attended the ceremony, which was celebrated very quietly, owing to the recent indisposition of Miss Emma Thursby."
After living in The Gramercy for nearly half a century, Emma Cecilia Thursby died in her apartment at the age of 86 on July 4, 1931. Newspapers nationwide ran columns-long accounts of her life, and testimonials signed by famous composers like Charles Gounod, Victor Massé and Jules Massenet arrived at the apartment.
In 1937 Ina donated the Emma Cecilia Thursby Memorial Music Building to the Moravian Seminary and College for Women in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The New York Sun praised it on July 2 saying, "Probably none of the donations to colleges and universities that are being announced at this graduation season will mean more to the future of music in the United States than the building in memory of Emma Thursby, American singer."
The article added "Miss Thursby resides in the apartment at 34 Gramercy Park to which she and her sister moved fifty-six years ago--the first tenants. The spacious salon, where Emma Thursby sang, where later she taught Geraldine Farrar and other noted singers, is much the same today, with its grandfather's clock, its two fireplaces, with windows on three sides and the full-length portrait of the great singer...It overlooks Gramercy Park and the willow tree there, brought from Peter Cooper's farm and planted in honor of Emma Thursby. To this salon came all the important musical personages of Emma Thursby's time--Nordica, Caruso, Edouard Grieg, Ole Bull, who accompanied her on her last tour, and the elder Damrosch, on Friday afternoons in January and February when she was in New York."
On March 28, 1958 fifty of the building's residents attended a champagne party in the apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Garfield to celebrant The Gramercy's 75th anniversary. In reporting on the festivities, The New York Times mentioned "Although many apartments have been altered--there are fifty--the three original elevators, operated by pulling a cable, are still being used. The tenants today include doctors, lawyers, actors, editors and business executives."
The unnamed actors referred to in the article were James Cagney and Margaret Hamilton, best known for her role as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. Hamilton initiated the yearly Halloween tradition of lining the hallways with carved and candle-lit pumpkins and baskets of candy and freshly-baked cookies for the children. On at least one occasion in the 1960's, according to one former resident, Susan Tunick, in a letter to The New York Times, "Margaret Hamilton hung her Wicked Witch costume in the doorway and greeted the youngsters as they rang her bell."
The owners have taken great pains (and expense) to keep the structure in good condition. In the summer of 1985 the sandstone was patched and repointed and the sheet metal cornice was cleaned and painted. A less welcomed update came in 1994 when the co-op spent around $700,000 to finally replace the Otis hydraulic passenger elevator--the oldest operating example in the world, according to the Otis Company.
Other celebrities would call The Gramercy home. Actor Jimmy Fallon bought an apartment in 2002, paying about $850,000 for a one-bedroom on the seventh floor (just under $1.2 million today). Two years later, when his neighbor across the hall died, he purchased that unit as well, spending $1.5 million. Fallon may have intended to connect the two, but if so he never got around to it.
Instead he kept buying. By 2015 he owned five apartments in the building and that year informed his motion picture star friend Richard Gere about another available apartment. Gere purchased the two-bedroom, 1,113-square-foot apartment early in 2016, spending more than $2.5 million.
Touted widely as the oldest cooperative apartment building in the city, The Gramercy has lost none of its architectural charm in its 126-year existence.
photographs by the author