- Historic Sites
Williamsburg On The Subway
In the most self-consuming of cities, an impressive and little-known architectural legacy remains to show us how New Yorkers have lived and prospered since the days when the population stood at around one thousand
May/June 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 3
He got the best—one of the supreme sites in New York, located on the East River near present-day Eighty-eighth Street and commanding an unexampled view of the treacherous strait known as Hell Gate. Gracie in 1799 constructed a comfortable Federal-style center-hall dwelling that faced roughly south to give him a good view of the river. A few years later, however, perhaps realizing he had scanted his main attraction, he added onto the north side, rearranged interior walls, and turned the house’s axis ninety degrees to orient it to the east, with a new front door dramatically facing Hell Gate. (The switch produced an imbalance of windows on the eastern facade that most visitors hardly notice.) The wide porch that surrounded the house on three sides was, like the roofline, surmounted with delicate trellis railings, while the interior was sumptuous, with exquisitely carved Adam mantels and delicate chandeliers. It was a marvelous setting for parties, and Gracie gave elaborate ones, gathering under his roof the likes of John Quincy Adams, Washington Irving, and Louis Philippe, future king of France.
The splurging was short-lived. During Jefferson’s ruinous embargo of 1807 to 1809, Gracie lost two valuable ships laden with gold and silver; other setbacks followed, and his fortune disappeared. In 1823 he sold his beloved mansion; he died six years later.
Luckily the two families that owned the mansion during the next sixty years cared for it well. The same could not be said of the city, which acquired the property in 1896 following condemnation proceedings because of a park it was constructing nearby (today’s Carl Schurz Park). The ornamental trellis railings were torn off, and the house became a kind of shabby outbuilding in the park. For a while it housed public rest rooms and an ice-cream parlor. In the 1920s it briefly served as the first home of the Museum of the City of New York, but in 1932 it again fell vacant.
Gracie Mansion was rescued by the domineering parks commissioner Robert Moses, who made it—over La Guardia’s resistance—the mayor’s official home.
Its rescuer, oddly enough, was Robert Moses, New York’s immensely creative and domineering parks commissioner and a man ordinarily more given to wiping out his city’s past than to preserving it. In 1934 Moses was busy upgrading Carl Schurz Park, and he insisted that the mansion be properly restored; he got it a new roof and porch, new clapboards, and much needed interior repairs. Then, during the late 1930s, when the East River Drive was being built—it actually tunnels under the front lawn—Moses proposed that the house become the mayor’s official residence. Fiorello La Guardia, who was mayor at the time, would have none of it: too fancy, he said. But as his widow later recalled, “Bob Moses wore him down.” The La Guardias moved there in 1942, and New York’s chief executives have been there ever since.
In the 1960s a large and tasteful back wing for receptions and other official functions was added at the suggestion of, and under the guidance of, Mayor Robert F. Wagner’s wife Susan. Recently, a private group called the Gracie Mansion Conservancy was organized to help furnish and maintain the house, and under its tutelage superb paintings and fine period pieces—all from New York originally—have been introduced, and delightful gardens planted about the grounds. Archibald Gracie would have been happy to see his old country seat serving so handsomely as the number-one house of the nation’s number-one city.
Richmondtown Restoration, 1695 through 1869
One of New York City’s best-kept secrets is the existence on Staten Island of an expertly restored collection of fine old houses, government buildings, stores, and other structures that offers a revealing glimpse of life in a small community more than a century and a half ago. The group, known as the Richmondtown Restoration, comprises the largest collection of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century structures in New York City and the finest display of Dutch-American vernacular buildings in the country.
A crossroads village in mid-island first settled in the 1690s by Dutch, English, and French farmers, Richmondtown (originally called Cocclestown) became the seat of Richmond County—Staten Island’s official designation—in 1728. By 1850 it was a thriving governmental center, with an impressive Greek Revival courthouse (1837) and a handsome brick county clerk’s office (1848). But the town’s primacy did not last. When a new railroad line bypassed it, Richmondtown began a slow decline, and shortly after the 1898 annexation of Staten Island by New York City—part of the creation of Greater New York—the county seat was moved to St. George, on the island’s north shore. By 1920 most of the government buildings had been abandoned; the town’s Dutch Reformed church had been closed and its building was moved away to be used as a carriage garage. Richmondtown became just another quiet residential community.