How Gramercy Park became the only private park in Manhattan

The story begins in 1831, when Samuel B. Ruggles, a New York City lawyer and real estate investor, had an idea.

The metropolis was growing fast, pushing past its Lower Manhattan borders and creeping up to 14th Street and beyond. The builders of all the new houses and commercial buildings didn’t always care much about urban planning, and Manhattan’s naturally hilly topography was being leveled and turned into streets and building lots.

Ruggles knew that elite New Yorkers would pay big to reside in a different kind of setting, even if it was somewhat north of the posh sections of the city. “He recognized the value of centering residences around inviting open spaces within Manhattan’s strict city grid,” stated the National Parks Service.

So Ruggles bought land between today’s 19th Street and 24th Street and Broadway (then known as Bloomingdale Road) and Second Avenue. This marshy part of the city was known as the Crommesshie, or krom moerasje, a Dutch term later corrupted to “Gramercy” that meant “little crooked swamp,” per the NPS.

Ruggles drained the marsh and planned the new neighborhood of Gramercy (below map, from 1831): 66 lots centered on a two-acre green space for residents only that would be an “attractive inducement for real-estate development in the early 19th century,” according to a 1966 report by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The idea of a private park on city grounds sounds very undemocratic to contemporary New Yorkers. But it wasn’t all that unusual at the time.

First, the whole idea of a park as we know it today was a new concept; it would be another decade before city officials began seriously considering creating the open urban space that ultimately became Central Park in 1859.

Also, a precedent had been set, as Manhattan already had another private park for elite residents only: St. John’s Park, in view of St. John’s Chapel and many posh row houses in today’s Tribeca.

And since the buyers of the building lots would also pay to maintain the park, it wasn’t unreasonable that the park itself would be off-limits to outsiders, blocked by a wrought iron fence.

The first residents relocated to Gramercy in the 1840s, and two years later, planting in the park began, according to the LPC, adding that the iron gate has been locked since 1844. (The first keys were actually made of solid gold, per a 2012 article in the New York Times.)

Close to two centuries later, some of those original private dwellings remain, joined by elegant and historic apartment buildings. Gramercy Park residents successfully fought an attempt to have a cable car cut through the park in the 1890 and 1912, and the tranquil character Ruggles sought remains to this day, “long after the death of the society for which it was designed,” notes the LPC. (A fountain in the park pays homage to Ruggles.)

And what about the still-private park, the only one in Manhattan—St. John’s Park bit the dust in the 1860s—and one of two in all of New York City? (Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, created in 1926, is also members-only.)

According to the New York Times, just 383 keys to the park exist, and they’re reserved for residents of the 39 buildings around the perimeter of the park. (Guests of the Gramercy Park Hotel can also sign a key out and be escorted to the park by a staffer.)

“Any of the 39 buildings on the park that fails to pay the yearly assessment fee of $7,500 per lot, which grants it two keys—fees and keys multiply accordingly for buildings on multiple lots—will have its key privileges rescinded,” notes the Times.

Though Gramercy Park used to open one day every year to non-residents, that tradition has ended. If you really want to enjoy the gorgeous landscaping and the statue of actor (and presidential assassin brother) Edwin Booth yet can’t get a key of your own, you might have a shot on Christmas Eve.

In 2019, the park opened to the public for one hour for a caroling event. But be warned: there’s no word on whether that will ever happen again.

[Third image: 1831, MCNY 29.100.2973; fourth image: early 1900s, MCNY x2011.34.3342; fifth image: 1944, MCNY 90.28.30; sixth image: 1913 NYPL]

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3 Responses to “How Gramercy Park became the only private park in Manhattan”

  1. countrypaul Says:

    I have actually been in it, about a dozen years ago. One key for the park is “attached to” a small NYU dorm which abuts the park. My friend’s daughter lived there and took us in one day. You cannot imagine what an island of peace and tranquility it still is. I did not want to leave, and wish I could go back again.

  2. jms Says:

    It had been my understanding that Gramercy derives from krom mesje, or “crooked little knife”, the shape of which lent its name to a brook, thence the marsh and so ultimately the park. In support of this I would note that knives can more easily be crooked than swamps.

    (Then again, I could have sworn I first came across this tidbit in reference to a song and/or album of that title — “Crooked Little Knife” — by Tori Amos or Fiona Apple or Alanis Morissette or Suzanne Vega or some other female musical superstar of the same time frame … and now I can find no trace of it whatsoever, so whadda I know?)

    Here’s a curious fact: Fredric Wertham was a Gramercy Park North resident and thus had what in earlier years would have been a gold key.

  3. Tom B Says:

    Why did the ‘open 1 day per year to non-residents’ end? Was it the rich being haughty or the poor being nasty?
    There’s a simple reason why the sidewalks of the UES look different than the Bowery and it has nothing to do with wealth or lack of it.

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