The meaning behind two Gramercy lampposts

Four Gramercy Park West, with its ornamented white doors and iron lace terrace, is about as breathtaking as a New York City townhouse can get (number four is at left).

Built in 1846 soon after Gramercy Park was transformed from a swamp to an elite neighborhood, the Greek Revival home “features sun-filled rooms, high ceilings, and elaborate crown molding, and it comes with a coveted key to the park,” writes 6sqft.

It also features two cast-iron lampposts flanking the front entrance on the sidewalk. Oddly, the mirror image townhouse next door, Three Gramercy Park West, has no lampposts.

So what’s the significance?

The lampposts are remnants of a mayoral tradition leftover from Dutch colonial days.

In the 1840s, this was the home of New York mayor James Harper (founder in 1825 of Harper & Brothers, now Harper Collins). What were dubbed the “mayor’s lamps” were at some point installed.

“The custom dates back to the early days of the Dutch Burgomasters,” according to the New York Times in 1917. “It is supposed to have originated with the lantern bearers who were accustomed to escort the Burgomaster home with proper dignity from the historic city tavern or other places of genial entertainment.”

Hmm, sounds like the tradition was in part a way to get a possibly drunk colonial leader back home safely.

“The lanterns were then left in front of the residence as a warning to any boisterous members of the town not to disturb the rest of the official ruler of the city.” Well, those early colonists did love their taverns.

“The Dutch custom of placing special lamps at the mayor’s door was an aid to finding his house at night, but by Harper’s day, it was merely ceremonial,” states “The custom ended with the 1942 establishment of Gracie Mansion as the mayor’s official residence.”

Harper lived there until his death in 1869; his descendants stayed on in the house until 1923. Since then, it’s become significant for two more reasons.

Number four is rumored to be the townhouse home of Stuart Little.

E.B. White never specified this in his classic tale of the adventurous mouse boy. But the book’s illustrations certainly look a lot like the former Harper residence, as the site Architecture Here and There reveals.

Four Gramercy Park is also immortalized on the cover of Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited.

Manager Albert Grossman lived there at the time. Doesn’t the white door behind Dylan look familiar? Here’s the story about the shoot, from Rolling Stone.

[Second Photo: Wikipedia; Fourth photo: MCNY/Berenice Abbott]

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16 Responses to “The meaning behind two Gramercy lampposts”

  1. Zoé Says:

    Lol. This is great Ephemeral. I was wondering how the Dylan album tied in & couldn’t read fast enough. (Dylan looking a bit like Richard Hell before Richard Hell looked like Richard Hell… The hair & expression… ). The best thing about that cover was the Triumph motorcycle T. And the silk shirt (jacket?) worn over it. Informing the sartorial choice of mixing it up for those of us who came after. (Although the Roma did it long before…).

    I worked around the corner & used to go to a tiny bakery on the park for coffee before work – when I was too early off the train from Brooklyn. (A rarity!). I always wanted to go into that enchanted *garden* (the park). Those residents are beyond lucky.

    Did you do a post about the mysterious tunnel?

    • Zoé Says:

      PS: Thanks for that term “iron lace”. That’s beautiful. I never knew it was called that. I thought it was called ‘scrollwork’; but that is probably just for forged work on gates etc. Whilst this must be cast.

    • Zoé Says:

      Lol – I just clicked on your link & read that apparently Dylan thought the Triumph T-shirt would be the best part of the photo also!

  2. Cynthia Chaffee Says:


  3. j.henry Says:

    The house at #4 looked absolutely amazing with it’s original shutters/blinds. People forget that most houseshad them and it really does change the look.

    • Zoé Says:

      I *love* those shutters. They require frequent painting to keep from rotting. Something not very popular w/ typical NYC landlords. (Especially back in the bankrupt decaying city years). So they just waited till they fell off in some cases; then never replaced them.

      They went the way of sweet little door gardens & trees in front of townhouses & apartment houses; which were filled in with cement. Because cement doesn’t need weeding or pruning or mowing or planting. Let’s release the tiny courtyards from their cement imprisonment.

  4. Alan Glaze Says:

    Number 3 Gramercy Park West. Next door. Was where actor John Garfield spent his last night on earth on May 21st, 1952

    • Zoé Says:

      Julie Garfinkle (Jacob Julius Garfinkle) born on the LES. Lol he broke the ‘I get a nosebleed if I live above 14th Street’ LES saying. (Yet stayed *near* 14th). He was *adorable*. That face. ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’… etc. Thanks for telling us.

  5. trilby1895 Says:

    Isn’t there a lovely old home on St. Luke’s Place with similar lamp posts, also formerly the home of a New York City mayor?

    • Zoé Says:

      When I lived in Prospect Heights Brooklyn (on Sterling) there were still old gas lamposts… *with* working/burning gas. (Only some of them had been switched to electric).

      The light from gas lamps is really lovely. Sort of an amber/orange glow. (I miss it.There was an 1830s mill building in Westport that had gas lights at the doors also… Early 1970s).

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Yes, the former home of Mayor Jimmy Walker, the city’s party boy mayor during the Jazz Age. I just walked by tonight!

      • trilby1895 Says:

        Wow! I remember reading about him; looking at it last night, quiet, sedate, were you able to imagine the scene back in the Jazz Age? Thanks, ephemeral!

  6. David H Lippman Says:

    It was also so that the authorities could find the mayor’s home at night or in fog in case of emergency.

  7. How Gramercy Park became the only private park in Manhattan | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] to two centuries later, some of those original private dwellings remain, joined by elegant and historic apartment buildings. Gramercy Park residents successfully fought an […]

  8. All the terra cotta beauty of an early uptown apartment building | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] served as New York’s mayor from 1858 to 1860. Since Dutch colonial days, tradition had it that twin lanterns would be installed outside the front door of the mayor’s […]

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