If you drive south on the FDR Drive, just below the 96th Street exit, you can see, for a fleeting moment, the official residence of New York City’s mayors.
By Paul Hicks
If you drive south on the FDR Drive, just below the 96th Street exit, you can see, for a fleeting moment, the official residence of New York City’s mayors. A far better way to see it, however, is to plan a visit to the historic Gracie Mansion as we did recently on a tour arranged by SPRYE (Staying Put in Rye & Environs) for its members.
Tea Tours, like the one our group enjoyed, are available for groups of 25 to 50 people and take place Tuesdays and Thursdays. The cost is $25 per person, which covers a guided tour of the mansion and tea, complete with delicious sandwiches, cakes, and scones.
There are also guided tours that are open to the general public most Wednesdays at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 2 p.m. General admission is $7 for adults, $4 for seniors, and students are admitted without charge. The tours last about 45 minutes.
The story of Gracie Mansion, located on a bend in the East River, provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of New York City. In 1646, a Dutch farmer in New Amsterdam built a simple farmhouse on the site. A more substantial home stood on the land when George Washington had a fort built there at the start of the Revolutionary War, but everything was destroyed by the British in a bombardment.
In 1799, a prosperous merchant named Archibald Gracie built a country house on the property, five miles from the lower Manhattan area that was still the heart of the growing city. Other successful New Yorkers owned estates near the Gracie family, all of which were accessible only by water. Among the visitors to their home were Alexander Hamilton, James Fenimore Cooper, and Washington Irving.
The Gracie family sold the home in 1823 and two other families lived there for the balance of the nineteenth century before it fell into disrepair. In 1896, New York City claimed the property due to non-payment of taxes. Eleven acres of the land were turned into a park named for Carl Schurz, and the site became a storage area until it became the first home of the Museum of the City of New York.
In the 1930s, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses convinced City authorities that Gracie Mansion should become the official residence of the Mayor. In1942, Fiorello LaGuardia became the first mayor to move into the home with his family. The current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, does not live there but makes great use of it for official meetings and events.
The property has been enlarged and restored in several stages over the past several decades. As we toured through the mansion our knowledgeable docent described many of the architectural and interior design details that have been carefully preserved or restored.
Funds for the preservation have been provided by the Gracie Mansion Conservancy, established by former Mayor Ed Koch in 1981. Most recently the Conservancy paid for a major renovation of the interior to which Mayor Bloomberg is thought to have been a substantial contributor.
The mansion is a wonderful example of the Federal style, known for bright colored and intricately patterned interiors. To maximize lighting in the downstairs rooms, large chandeliers were used in combination with wall mirrors to reflect the candlelight. Much of the furniture dates to the Federal period, and some belonged to the Gracie family.
Since there is no mayor or family in residence, the tours include a view of some of the private rooms, last occupied by the Rudy Giuliani family. As we learned, visiting dignitaries like Nelson Mandela have occasionally stayed in the guest rooms.
For more information about Gracie Mansion, including tours, visit www.nyc.gov/gracie. It is one of New York City’s hidden treasures.