The 19th century is a part of Gramercy Park today History: ZTC The aura and architecture in this Manhattan neighborhood are much as they were 150 years ago.

September 15, 1996|By Ralph Vigoda | Ralph Vigoda,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

Travel often requires a healthy imagination. A tour-bus guide can point out the site of a Revolutionary event in Boston, but not a trace remains. A plaque in Philadelphia can show you the spot of the country's first circus, but it stands next to a parking garage. See Dolley Madison's Washington home, but don't be disappointed to find it covered by the shadow of a concrete monstrosity that houses federal offices.

That's what makes New York's Gramercy Park neighborhood so fabulous. It shows you the way it really was. And you can easily take it all in on a weekend visit.

In this section of Manhattan, between 14th and 23rd streets, from Third Avenue to Park Avenue South, no imagination is required.

It is the city's 150-year-old movie set with no false fronts, New York's time machine, permanently stuck somewhere between 1850 and 1890. While Manhattan has undergone monumental changes over the last century, Gramercy Park has steadfastly refused to move forward.

It is, writes architecture critic Paul Goldberger, "probably the only quarter in New York in which one might still today actually sustain the illusion of being in London."

The London, that is, of the 19th century.

This is the place where Mark Twain hung out and Stephen Crane shared a studio apartment with three artists; where famed stage actor Edwin Booth sought refuge after his brother assassinated President Abraham Lincoln; and where silent screen star Theda Bara lived.

It's also where George Bellows painted and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens grew up and Stanford White nurtured his architectural ideas.

It's where Teddy Roosevelt was born, where Eleanor Roosevelt was baptized and where presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden awaited a victory party that never happened.

It's where O. Henry got drunk, where F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald partied, and where Edith Wharton was born; she eventually portrayed New York's upper-crust lifestyle in "The Age of Innocence," some of which takes place in Gramercy Park. (The very first line of the book, in fact, puts the reader in the grand Academy of Music on 14th Street.)

More recently, it's been home to James Cagney and the Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton.

But most of all, Gramercy Park is a testament to one man who valued a neighborhood of peace and quiet in a city he correctly believed would soon explode in both population and construction.

That man was Samuel Ruggles, and the rules he wrote in 1831 to govern the rectangular plot of green and trees that gave the neighborhood its name are still followed today. Gramercy Park is the sole private park in New York; only neighborhood residents are allowed to pass through its wrought-iron gates, which have been standing since 1844.

Start at the park

But even though you can't get inside the park, don't stay away from the area. Stroll around the outside, pausing to tickle the noses of the squirrels that poke their heads through the bars looking for a handout. Then walk around the side streets for delightful discoveries.

The park itself is a logical starting point. In the early 1800s the land was part of the holdings of Sam Ruggles, a brilliant native of Connecticut who graduated from Yale in 1814 at the age of 14, moved to New York to practice law, and by 31 had done so well in real estate that he was able to retire from his practice.

That same year, 1831, he drew up plans for a large tract of land he owned between 19th and 24th streets, a hilly, swampy area that was a good hike away from the populated areas of lower Manhattan. The name "Gramercy" comes from the Dutch "Krom Moerasje," meaning "crooked little knife-shaped swamp." The park, between 20th and 21st Streets, was plotted in the middle of about 60 housing lots; Ruggles' deed stipulated that only brick or stone residences be built, and it listed what could not invade his territory: livery stables, breweries, public museums, slaughterhouses, smith shops or "any other trade or business dangerous or offensive to the neighboring inhabitants."

The Irving connection

In the center of the land he cut two wide north-south streets, naming one Lexington Avenue after the Revolutionary battle, the other Irving Place for his friend, author Washington Irving. (One house at 49 Irving Place bears a huge plaque identifying it incorrectly as Washington Irving's home; his nephew lived there. Across the street, though, is Washington Irving High School, notable for a tremendous bust of Irving outside and for at least two famous alumnae, Claudette Colbert and Whoopi Goldberg.)

In the middle of the park is a statue of Edwin Booth as Hamlet. Booth lived at 16 Gramercy Park South (the streets bordering the park are Gramercy Park North, South, East and West). The townhouse dates to 1845; Booth took it over in 1888 and had Stanford White remodel it into the Players Club, primarily for actors, although members have included such diverse folks as Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and Gen. William T. Sherman.

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