Architectural Ambler: Gramercy Park Historic District

In the midst of the commotion that has come to define Manhattan, one sometimes wishes for an escape to a serene place – reminiscent of the days before honking yellow taxis dominated the streets, before flashy advertisements battled Blackberries for your attention, before Starbucks had conquered almost every city block. But, you do not need to travel far to find this serenity; you can find it in the Gramercy Park Historic District.
Gramercy Park Historic District, Aerial View

Gramercy Park Historic District, Aerial View

Listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, the Gramercy Park Historic District is one of the earliest examples of community planning in New York City. It showcases a variety of 19th- and 20th-century architectural styles that blend together to create a diverse yet harmonious neighborhood.

In 1831, Samuel B. Ruggles bought Gramercy Farm from James Duane, New York City’s first post-Revolutionary mayor. Although the area was generally considered to be too far north of downtown to live in when he purchased it, Ruggles nevertheless had the swampy property drained and filled-in with dirt, and he made plans to develop it as an upper-class residential neighborhood.
He divided the land into 66 lots surrounding a private central square set aside exclusively for the property owners’ use. Completed in 1832, the Gramercy Park square was enclosed by an iron fence and gate, only accessible by key.
Ruggles also stipulated certain building requirements to incentivize wealthy families to move to the area. In addition to height and size restrictions, Ruggles mandated that no business activity could occur in any of the structures, although churches and institutions were permitted. These regulations, predating the city’s zoning laws by 85 years, helped to create the unified blocks of the Gramercy Park district by ensuring that the neighborhood would develop as a predominately residential one, with large, single-family homes. Remarkably, these restrictions remain largely intact 175 years later, allowing one to walk along the square and view the surrounding architecture as if no time had passed since construction.
View from Gramercy Park

View from Gramercy Park

1-5 Gramercy Park West

1-5 Gramercy Park West

On the western side of Gramercy Park are five brick townhouses built in the 1840s. Although they are not identical, they have many elements that create a sense of unity, a common theme throughout the district. The townhouses at 1 and 2 Gramercy Park W. are built in the Italianate style, while 3, 4 and 5 Gramercy Park W. exemplify the Greek Revival style. However, all five townhouses rise to the same height of five stories and are each three windows in width, creating an appearance of unity between the different styles. The cast-iron porches at 3 and 4 Gramercy Park W., designed by Alexander Jackson Davis, lend elegant and intricate detail to this side of the square.

On the south side of Gramercy Park is an array of buildings that share the same height and general width, but which vary in color, style, and detail. In the center of this architectural amalgamation, two structures – equipped with flags and awnings signaling their importance – are the focal point for the block. These are 15 and 16 Gramercy Park S. – the buildings of the National Arts Club and the Players Club.
15 and 16 Gramercy Park South - National Arts Club and the Players Club

15 and 16 Gramercy Park South – National Arts Club and the Players Club

The National Arts Club building is comprised of two brownstones dating from 1845 and joined together in 1874 by Calvert Vaux for Samuel J. Tilden in the Victorian Gothic style. The late-19th-century renovations – including the addition of intricate ornamentation and the carved heads of famous authors interspersed throughout colorful stonework – suited the mission of the National Arts Club, which has occupied the building since 1906.

The Players Club, with Edwin Booth and Mark Twain amongst its founders, resides next door to the National Arts Club. The Players Club building was originally constructed in 1845 as a Gothic Revival townhouse; in 1888, Edwin Booth engaged architect Stanford White to add the imposing portico. Edwin Booth lived at 16 Gramercy Park E. until his death in 1893. Today, a statue of him stands in the center of Gramercy Park, across the street from the Players Club building.
36 Gramercy Park East, a 12-storied, U-shaped building designed by James Riely Gordon in 1908.

36 Gramercy Park East, a 12-storied, U-shaped building designed by James Riely Gordon in 1908.

On the east side of the square, one cannot miss the 12 –storied, U-shaped building at 36 Gramercy Park E. This Gothic apartment complex, with its white, glazed terra-cotta façade, was designed by James Riely Gordon in 1908. The entire façade is ornamented with elaborate details, such as the spiral rope moldings that rise up at the corners of the building, and the projecting oriels that begin on the fourth story and continue up six stories to the balconies of the recessed 10th-story windows. Two knights with shields protect the recessed entrance, which is topped by an intricately detailed pediment.

At the center of the neighborhood is Gramercy Park, the last-surviving private park in Manhattan. If you are lucky enough to gain access to it, you can truly step back in time, surrounded by beautiful, historic architecture, and secluded behind the tall wrought-iron fence that keeps the modern world at bay.