The most famous summer house in Manhattan

You might not immediately recognize this elegant, two-story wood mansion, with its large windows and wide porches—perfect for capturing cool East River breezes.

But in the post-colonial New York of the early 19th century, the house stood out among the other posh summer estates built in the bucolic countryside of today’s Yorkville.

This was the summer home of Archibald Gracie. Born in Scotland in 1755, Gracie (at left) arrived in New York in 1784 with a cargo of goods that netted him enough money to invest in a mercantile.

By the 1790s, he was a very rich merchant and shipowner. His regular residence was a State Street townhouse so impressive it was known as “The Pillars,” according to a 1973 New York Daily News article.

But like other wealthy city residents, he wanted a summer house, too.

For $3,700, “he bought 11 acres of rolling land at Horn’s Hook, facing the Hell Gate,” a 1981 Daily News explained, referring to the treacherous section of the East River between Astoria and Randall’s Island that claimed hundreds of ships by the late 19th century.

The house, built on a high bluff facing the East River next to a towering cottonwood tree used as a landmark for sailors, was designed for the enjoyment of his family, elite friends, and notable guests.

“In 1799, Gracie began construction of his mansion, a sumptuous building of 14 rooms and eight bathrooms, replete with hand-carved fireplaces and priceless furniture,” wrote the Daily News. “There was a large dining room and a broad, white pillared porch that overlooked the East River—in all ways, an ideal site for holding large receptions.”

At the time, it took an entire day to sail from the Battery to reach his house at today’s East 88th Street.

But Gracie and his family made the trip often, entertaining political and literary figures such as Alexander Hamilton (a business partner of Gracie’s and the owner of a lovely summer estate in Harlem), James Fenimore Cooper, John Quincy Adams, and Washington Irving.

Irving, in particular, was struck by the beauty of the house and Gracie’s hospitality.

“I cannot tell you how sweet and delightful I found this retreat, pure air, agreeable scenery, profound quiet,” Irving (below left) wrote in 1813 in his diary, according to the Daily News.

Of the Gracies, he wrote, “Their country seat was one of my strongholds last summer, as I lived in its vicinity. It is a charming, warm-hearted family, and the old gentleman has the soul of a prince.”

The summer house wouldn’t stay in the Gracie family. Gracie lost much of his fortune by 1819. “The craggy-faced Scot,” as the Daily News called him, died at age 94 in 1829.

Through the mid- to late-19th century, the house changed owners at least twice. As the area’s summer estates were sold off and parceled out and Yorkville became more urbanized, the house fell into disrepair.

In 1894, the city took possession of Gracie’s house and built East End Park—now Carl Schurz Park—around it. The dwelling was home to the Museum of the City of New York from 1923 to 1936, when the museum decamped to its current location on Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street.

It was Parks Commissioner Robert Moses who suggested revamping the house and turning it into the official residence of New York City’s mayors.

Gracie Mansion, as it’s known to New Yorkers, is probably the city’s best-known summer house. Once a country retreat for one of New York’s richest men, it now serves as the designated home for city mayors since Fiorello LaGuardia was in office…and sadly is hard to see behind an ugly tall fence.

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society, 1923; second image: Wikipedia; third image: New-York Historical Society, 1923; fourth image NYPL, late 19th century; fifth image: New-York Historical Society, 1914; sixth image: New-York Historical Society, 1923; seventh image: Wikipedia; eighth image: New-York Historical Society, 1923]

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11 Responses to “The most famous summer house in Manhattan”

  1. Tom B Says:

    Nice story about Arch Gracie. I wonder how he lost his fortune so quickly? He had to be the oldest man (94) in NYC 1829. Did Robert Moses get a lot of flack for revamping the house for the future Mayors?

    • Bob Says:

      “History knows Archibald Gracie more for his house than for him. He was hard-working, industrious, scrupulous, and successful until President Jefferson’s embargo in 1807. Thereafter, it was all downhill. To pay off his debts, Gracie sold the house in 1823 to Joseph Foulkes, who later sold it to Noah Wheaton whose family kept it until his death in 1896. ”

      https://www.gothamcenter.org/blog/houses-of-usher-brief-surveys-of-a-failing-patch-of-manhattan-now-known-as-the-upper-east-side

    • Bob Says:

      “In May 1942, federal authorities warned New York that the glow of city lights was making ships offshore easy targets for German submarines. […] But the Mayor failed to mention that week’s historic milestone: the city’s powerful Board of Estimate had designated a Federal-style house in Carl Schurz Park along the East River as the permanent residence of New York’s mayors and on May 26 the La Guardias had moved in, becoming the first mayoral family to occupy Gracie Mansion.

      “The city’s strong-willed Parks Commissioner Robert Moses had been urging the Mayor to reside in an official residence for years but La Guardia had resisted. He was content to raise his two children Eric and Jean, along with his late brother’s son, Richard, in his unpretentious six-room apartment in an Italian neighborhood in East Harlem. Back in 1936, when industrialist Charles M. Schwab had offered to donate his seventy-five-room turreted castle on Riverside Drive for the mayor’s house, La Guardia had scoffed, ‘What! Me in that?’

      “By 1942, with World War II raging, Moses was concerned about the Mayor’s security. He tried to convince the ‘Little Flower’, as La Guardia was known, that he’d found a location that could be easily guarded. Since 1936, the eighteenth century house built by wealthy merchant and shipbuilder Archibald Gracie as his summer residence had been a small post-Colonial museum, exhibiting furniture on loan to the city. Unfortunately, few New Yorkers or tourists ventured into Carl Schurz Park to visit. Moses, who, as parks commissioner, looked forward to becoming the Mayor’s landlord, argued it would be better for La Guardia to inhabit it than to let the house go to ruin. Besides, he argues, the federal Works Project Administration (the WPA) would pay to restore it and the furniture in the public rooms would be borrowed from local museums so the city’s costs would be minimal. The frugal Mayor relented.

      Still some New Yorkers thought any expense in the midst of war was unseemly. One businessman pointed out, ‘The King and Queen just moved out of Buckingham Palace to cut down expenses.’ Another, Mr. A. B. Montgomery, objected that the city was ‘seizing a public museum, however little used, and a portion of a public park.’ In his response, La Guardia was distinctly unenthusiastic. ‘My family is not keen about it,’ he wrote, ‘and it has no personal advantage for me.’

      View at Medium.com

  2. Bob Says:

    The 1940 census lists LaGuardia, age 57, and wife, children, and maid at 1274 Fifth Avenue. They had been living there since at least April 1, 1935. (See Line 23, Sheet 2-A, Assembly District 17, ED 31-1502) A note says they were “enumerated on 4/6/40 at City Hall.” His occupation was listed Mayor and Industry was listed as Chief Executive. He worked 63 hours during the week of 3/24/40 -3/30/40. His income was 5000 and his maid Jesse’s income was 768.

    https://1940census.archives.gov/search/?search.census_year=1940&search.city=&search.county=New+York+County&search.page=7&search.result_type=image&search.state=NY&search.street=5th+Av#filename=m-t0627-02659-00929.tif&name=31-1502&type=image&state=NY&index=3&pages=26&bm_all_text=Bookmark

  3. Yvonne Forte Says:

    Hi Sonia,

    You may be interested in the history as we visited Gracie Mansion now closed to the public. I think the fense has been put up since Mayor DeBlasio moved in. I am on a blog that sends pictures of old New YOrk and received this today.

    Yvonne xxx

    >

  4. randomlyreading Says:

    Yes, DeBlasio had the fence put up so that he and his wife could have privacy. I guess he forgot that Gracie Mansion isn’t his private house, it is the city’s property. I hope the fence comes down when he’s gone. Bloomberg never lived in it while he was mayor, but used it for official events.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Figures he put it up, and yes, it needs to come down. There’s also always a couple of police cars out front all the time whenever I visit the park, so I think he has plenty of security.

    • The Maven Says:

      I grew up not far from Gracie Mansion and was in the northern portion of Carl Schurz Park several times each week. I am quite sure that the metal fence around the mansion dates back at least as far as the Beame administration in the early-to-mid 1970s (as a kid, I recall trying to figure out with my friends if there was any place along the perimeter where we might be able to climb over). I believe that some of the white wooden vertical extensions and interior fences were added by the time Giuliani was in office. The police cars have been a fixture, too, for more years than I can remember, though they were less prominent prior to 9/11.

  5. David H Lippman Says:

    Fantastic piece of history!

  6. Lady G. Says:

    I’m just reading a good post about a New York Summer Mansion and a rich family that kindly hosted NY’s elites in the early 19th century. Even with the name, I never put it together that it was THE Gracie Mansion. (Whoosh! over my head) It was a fun “twist” for me at the end. I’d never read that history. Nice article.

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