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The Dramatic History of Gramercy Park's National Arts Club

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Getty Images for The National Arts Club

James Nevius is the co-author of Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers. He and his wife, Michelle, will be talking about the Tilden mansion and the history of Gramercy Park tonight at 8:00 p.m. at the National Arts Club. The event is free and open to the public.

One of the most remarkable Victorian buildings in the city, the dual townhouse at 14 and 15 Gramercy Park South, home of the National Arts Club, has become known for less-than-grand happenings in recent years: dead finches, hoarding, and the eviction of longtime club president O. Aldon James. Amid the club's controversies, the townhouse's earlier history was lost, but that history, featuring stolen elections and hidden escape tunnels, is at least as dramatic as anything from the James era.

The story of the clubhouse begins in 1831 with the creation of Gramercy Park itself. In the Dutch colonial era, the area was the northern edge of Peter Stuyvesant's bouwerij (farm); the mostly swampy ground came to be known as the krom moerasje (crooked marsh). When the English took over the colony in 1664, they began Anglicizing Dutch words: bouwerij became bowery, and krom moerasje was changed to Gramercy. After the Revolution, the marsh became part of a larger holding known as Gramercy Farm and owned by James Duane, the city's first post-Revolutionary mayor. Duane's heirs sold the land to attorney Samuel Ruggles, who envisioned an elegant neighborhood centered around a private park.

[The area east of Gramercy Park was still marshy in 1815. Randal Farm Map courtesy of the Office of the Manhattan Borough President.]

The promise of elegant homes set on bucolic squares pulled wealthy New Yorkers uptown beginning with the development of Hudson Square in 1807. Mayor Philip Hone had turned a city potter's field into Washington Square in 1826; Ruggles thought he could do one better by converting Gramercy Farm into a private enclave with a unique ownership plan: each of the 60 surrounding lots would own a 1/60th share in the park, making Gramercy Park the city's first successful experiment in cooperative ownership. To this day, the park is governed by five trustees—elected for life—drawn from the surrounding properties. Today, Gramercy Park strikes some New Yorkers as an elitist enclave, but Ruggles saw it (in his words) as a "free, glorious, open space" that would "bless the City forever." Free was perhaps overstating things: from the beginning, the park has been surrounded by a stout iron fence, with entry limited to the 60 owners and their guests. A key is required to get in and to get out. (I worked at the National Arts Club for many years in the 1980s and 90s and every so often, someone would sneak in behind a resident to enjoy the park, only to discover that he couldn't get out without a key and needed to be rescued.)

Ruggles hoped the park's exclusivity would draw the same social set as "The Row" had on Washington Square. Though initial sales were slow, by the early 1840s a number of homes had gone up around the park, some of which still stand today, including Valentine Mott's residence at One Gramercy Park West; the house of ex-mayor James Harper, at No. 4, and Nos. 14 and 15 on the south side, the homes, respectively, of banker Howard Potter and stockbroker George Belden.

By the Civil War, Gramercy had become one of the city's most fashionable areas, and in 1863, Samuel J. Tilden, an attorney, purchased 15 Gramercy from Belden. A great foe of William "Boss" Tweed and Tammany Hall, Tilden had long positioned himself within the Democratic party as an advocate of centrist reform and foe of Tammany's criminal excess. In 1871, Tilden spearheaded the prosecution of Tweed, unearthing vast frauds against the city. Though Tweed and his "ring" had been stealing money from projects large and small, the most egregious came from the new county courthouse—still known to this day as the Tweed Courthouse. For instance, plasterer Andrew Garvey was paid $133,187 for just two days' work (easily $2.5 million today). The whole project drained $14 million from the city's treasury, almost double what William Seward paid for Alaska around the same time.

Tilden successfully ran for governor in 1874 as the great reformer, and that same year, he purchased the Potter house at 14 Gramercy, but it seems he had little time to do anything with his new property. After serving just one term as governor, Tilden was nominated in 1876 to run for president against Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes.

For a few fleeting moments on election night, November 7, 1876, it seemed that Tilden had prevailed. The governor monitored election returns via a special telegraph line that had been installed in 15 Gramercy; though the die-hard Republican states went for Hayes, many districts that had backed President Grant in the previous two elections now switched to the Democrats, and Tilden led the popular vote by thousands of votes. However, when four states submitted suspect election returns, the election was thrown to the House of Representatives. It took four months, but a special electoral commission finally gave Hayes the presidency in March 1877, just days before the inauguration.

Tilden, stung by the loss, turned his attention to his Gramercy Park property, expanding his private library while waiting to be asked to run again in 1880. However, Tilden's prospects for a second nomination dimmed when the New York Tribune ran an exposé accusing him of having used the special telegraph that had been installed in 15 Gramercy to send "secret ciphers" to control ballot counters in southern states. Though no evidence of wrongdoing ever came to light, Tilden's reputation was damaged and he faded from the national scene. Instead, he threw himself into a major remodeling project, hiring Calvert Vaux (co-architect of Central Park), to join 14 and 15 Gramercy Park into one building and completely rework the facade in a Ruskinian Gothic style similar to Vaux's work on the Jefferson Market Courthouse. Vaux and his partner, George K. Radford, covered the original brick facades with red sandstone—very much in vogue in the early 1880s—and added intricate sculptural detail. Allegories of the four seasons carved from Scottish Carlisle stone dotted the facade along with heads of historical figures: Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, Milton, and Benjamin Franklin who was, in Tilden's words, "the representative American." Above the entrance to 14 Gramercy, Tilden's library, was a sandstone bust of Michelangelo.

Vaux's facade bears a striking resemblance to George B. Post's Brooklyn Historical Society headquarters (right), which was completed in 1881 just as Vaux was starting work on the Tilden mansion. Like Vaux, Post also featured portraits of Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and Franklin as symbols of the erudition within. Post would later go on to be the president of the National Arts Club at the time that the club purchased the Tilden mansion in 1906. Post covered TIlden's massive back gardens with a fourteen-story studio and residential tower fronting 19th Street.

Did Post also pave over Samuel Tilden's escape tunnel? For generations, rumors have persisted that Tilden built a tunnel from the main house to either the rear garden or to 19th Street to make a quick getaway in case his opponents came after him. After his death, Tilden's friends denied the stories, suggesting they'd arisen from confusion about the vault Tilden had constructed under the garden to expand the wine cellar and coal storage. Still, the rumors persist. When I worked at the National Arts Club, every few years someone would decide to look for evidence of the tunnel. Despite having crawled around in the basements of both the Gramercy Park and 19th Street buildings, I've never seen any proof of the tunnel—but then again, if could easily have been obliterated when George B. Post built the studio building.

In addition to Vaux's work on the facade of the two buildings, he oversaw a complete remodel of the interior. A massive stained glass dome by Donald MacDonald was installed in Tilden's library, and John La Farge created opalescent stained glass doors for the front parlor. Much of this work remains intact in the current National Arts Club, though the interiors were altered when the club took over; Tilden's library is now the club's bar and the La Farge doors were sealed shut when the 15 Gramercy entrance was dropped from the parlor floor to street level.

[The National Arts Club standing in for the Beaufort mansion in Martin Scorcese's adaptation of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence.]

Vaux finished his work in 1884, but Tilden had little time to appreciate his new home. During construction, he'd spent most of the time at his Yonkers estate, Greystone. By the time Vaux was done, Tilden's health was failing, and he died at Greystone in 1886. Tilden donated most of his substantial fortune and his books to found the New York Public Library. A dispute between Tilden's disinherited relatives and the estate dragged out for years, and the mansion was eventually turned into a rooming house known as the Tilden. Meanwhile, the National Arts Club, founded in 1898, had outgrown its West 34th home and was searching for new space. Club lore has it that club treasurer Spencer Trask passed by the Tilden mansion one day and was so taken with the house that he used his own money as a downpayment. It's not surprising that Trask liked the building—his own Brooklyn Heights home on Willow Street is a standout of Victorian brick and terra cotta.

By the time the club moved to Gramercy Park in 1906, the area had changed considerably from Tilden's era, with many homes being converted into clubhouses. Next door to Tilden's mansion, Edwin Booth's house had been renovated by Stanford White in 1888 to become the Players Club, a theatrical organization; the Princeton Club and the Columbia University Alumni Club were headquartered on the park as well.

[The National Arts Club in 1975. Photo courtesy the National Park Service.]

Early members of the National Arts Club included artists like William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri (who lived on the park), and Frederic Remington; collectors such as J.P. Morgan and Benjamin Altman; and President Theodore Roosevelt. A program of accepting artist life members in exchange for a work of art valued at $1000 meant that the club amassed a collection of early 20th-century American art that still graces its walls. Alas, non-members are not often allowed behind the velvet ropes into Tilden's parlors, but the rooms do pop up on film from time to time, most notably as the stand-in for the Beaufort mansion in Martin Scorsese's adaptation of Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence. To properly Victorianize the interiors, Scorsese's crew laid ornate red-and-gold wallpaper in many of the club's public spaces, which remained for many years. Other movies filmed at the club include Kramer vs. Kramer, Quiz Show, Manhattan Murder Mystery, and Cradle Will Rock, as well as various tv shows, including Gossip Girl and Smash.

One thing that set the National Arts Club apart from contemporary clubs was Post's studio building. While other clubs had (and still have) overnight rooms for non-resident club members, only the NAC has a revenue-generating apartment complex. This, of course, is what made club's below-market-rate apartments such a bone of contention during the James administration. How does the club balance the needs of its artist members—not all of whom can necessarily afford higher rents—with the necessity of making operating revenue?

This controversy, like the others that swirled around Gramercy Park for the last decade, seems to have quieted down, and the club is more likely to be in the news these days for its exhibitions than its internal strife. For that, Aldon James is to thank, as there's no denying that the arts and education component of the club was bolstered significantly during his long tenure (he became president in 1985 and stepped down in 2011, two years before he left his apartment).

What does the future hold for the Tilden mansion? Will there be another rebellion in the ranks? Let's just hope someone finds the governor's escape tunnel before then.
· How Gracie Mansion Became New York's 'Little White House' [Curbed]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]
· National Arts Club coverage [Curbed]