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How Gracie Mansion Became New York's 'Little White House'

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Writer James Nevius is the co-author of three books about New York City, the newest of which, Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers, is due out in April.

[Photo by Carol M. Highsmith, courtesy of the Library of Congress.]

On January 5, a few lucky ticket holders will be able to check out Gracie Mansion, the digs of the city's new mayor, Bill de Blasio. Mayor de Blasio's decision to move his family into Gracie Mansion has been criticized by, among others, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who didn't live there but raised significant funds (allegedly $7 million of it his own) to renovate the mansion. "If a mayor lives there," Bloomberg said during the campaign, "then what they're doing is they're costing this city a lot of money and depriving the rest of the city of one of the great facilities any city has."

Bloomberg's administration has taken pains to re-brand the mansion as the "People's House," implying greater public access and a criticism of any future mayor who chooses to live there. But Bloomberg does have a point: in the home's long history, its role as the mayoral residence is relatively new. In fact, de Blasio will be only the tenth mayor to live there; the first was Fiorello La Guardia, who took up residence in May 1942. And he had to be practically dragged into the place.

[Mayor James Harper's house (left) had twin gas lamps to signify his status. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.]

efore La Guardia, mayors of New York simply resided in their own homes. In a nod to their status, any current or former mayor was given the right to erect twin gas lamps at the foot of his front stoop. Two good examples of these still stand: one is the home of Mayor James Harper (better known for his publishing company) at 4 Gramercy Park; the other is La Guardia's predecessor, "Gentleman" Jimmy Walker, who lived at 6 St. Luke's Place.

Soon after a corruption scandal forced Walker from office in 1932, La Guardia swept in as the anti-Tammany, Republican reformer. At the time, he and his family were living in a tenement at 1274 Fifth Avenue in the Italian section of Harlem; La Guardia, the first Italian-American to reach City Hall, had no intention of leaving the old neighborhood.

That was before La Guardia had faced the full force of Robert Moses.

From a start as La Guardia's parks commissioner, Moses (right) began his ascent to become the most powerful man in City Hall. At the peak of his power, he controlled twelve city and state agencies, from slum clearance to Title I housing to the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel commission.

Somewhere along the line, Moses also got it into his head that the mayor should have an official residence. Perhaps, for Moses—who, as Robert Caro points out in his masterful biography The Power Broker, grew up surrounded by servants and chaffeured in the family car—the idea that the city's mayor lived in a Harlem tenement was just too déclassé.

[The Charles M. Schwab mansion on Riverside Drive. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.]

Then, in 1936, steel magnate Charles M. Schwab offered to sell his 75-room chateau on Riverside Drive to the city for $4 million, dangling the idea that it could become a mayoral home. Moses was delighted, but La Guardia was appalled. (The mayor allegedly reacted to Moses's suggestion with, "Who me? In that?")

Though the city rejected Schwab's offer (the house was torn down in 1948), Moses was now set on seeing the mayor move into an official residence. Luckily for him, there was one ready and waiting: Archibald Gracie's country home on the East River.

he area now occupied by Carl Schurz Park was once called Hoorn's Hook, an important defensive position during the American Revolution. In 1799, Archibald Gracie acquired the land and built a small house in the prevailing Federal style. The architect may have been its builder, Ezra Weeks, or John McComb, Jr., the co-architect of City Hall and designer of Hamilton Grange in Harlem.

Gracie made his living in transatlantic shipping, and as his business prospered in the early years of the nineteenth century, he was able to expand the home. But the War of 1812 limited American overseas trade and sent men like Gracie into financial ruin. New York Senator Rufus King (whose two sons had married two of Gracie's daughters) allegedly bailed Gracie out by purchasing the home in 1819 and allowing him to remain there. But by 1823, the home had been sold—likely by King—to help satisfy Gracie's creditors.

As the city expanded northward, Hoorn's Hook remained relatively untouched, and the mansion fell on hard times. The city acquired the house and surrounding land in 1896 to construct a new park—renamed Carl Schurz Park in 1910—and the house was used as a comfort station and sometime ice-cream stand.

The city renovated the building for the new Museum of the City of New York in 1923, but the size and location ultimately proved wrong for the museum. When the museum moved to Fifth Avenue in 1932, the city embarked on further renovations, reopening the mansion to visitors as a historic house museum in 1936, around the same time Charles Schwab tried and failed to sell his Riverside Drive property to the city.

Gracie Mansion soon shot to the top of Moses's short list of possible mayoral homes. When constructing the FDR Drive two years later, Moses made sure to cantilever Carl Schurz Park over the new highway in order to preserve Gracie Mansion's view—probably because he was already envisioning the home for the mayor. As a bonus, since the house sat in a city park, it would make Moses the mayor's de facto landlord. Yes, Moses really did think that way.

What finally pushed the city into action, though, may not have been Moses at all, but instead the country's entry into World War II. Not only was New York considered a prime target for Nazi bombing, but the mayor—appointed by FDR as the head of the Office of Civilian Defense—was a high-profile figure. Putting him and his family in an off-the-beaten-track location, surrounded by a stout six-foot iron fence, probably seemed like a prudent move.

Even after the decision had been made, La Guardia objected ("My family is not keen on it, and it has no personal advantages to me"); he managed to be out of town when the moving trucks arrived, only returning—as the Times slyly pointed out—once everything was unpacked. Still, La Guardia (right) got over his objections, and ultimately shaped the house for his own use, even having a studio installed for his weekly radio broadcasts.

The biggest drawback to the house, with less than 4,000 square feet spread over three floors, was that it was relatively small for both the private and official life of the mayor. In the 1960s, Mayor Robert Wagner's wife, Susan, initiated plans to expand the house to better serve for official functions. This new public wing—named for Susan Wagner, who died during construction—was built by Mott B. Schmidt in a mostly Federal Revival style. This evidently sent modernists, who had hoped for a more daring addition, around the bend. Also during this time, the house's fireplace became a fixture in New Yorkers' homes: WPIX filmed its first Yule Log at the mayor's house.

The house was completely overhauled during the Koch administration by the newly created Gracie Mansion Conservancy, and then again by Mayor Bloomberg. And now, of course, the de Blasios are moving in, turning this showpiece back into a home.

Should the de Blasios live there? The new mayor's "two cities" rhetoric notwithstanding, Gracie Mansion has come to be—in the words of H.L. Mencken's American Mercury magazine—New York's "Little White House." If that's true, it follows that the chief executive should reside there. And, after all, as Mayor John Lindsay famously quipped, being mayor of New York is "the second toughest job in America," so shouldn't we have a White House of our own?
—James Nevius

Further reading:
· New York City's Gracie Mansion: A History of the Mayor's House by Mary Black
· Gracie Mansion: A Celebration of New York City's Gracie Mansion by Ellen Stern
· Gracie Mansion coverage [Curbed]

If you want to check out Gracie Mansion, presumably the De Blasios will continue the tradition of guided tours. These take place on Wednesdays, cost $7, and are by reservation only.