Manhattan's Gated Community A Glance Inside Gramercy Park

When describing Gramercy Park to someone who's never been there, certain words immediately spring to mind. Historic, posh, and elegant would be good words to start with. "Star-studded" and "exclusive" might be useful, too.

For the tourist or New York City newcomer, Gramercy is one of those neighborhoods that define their vision of the city's classy, moneyed elite; women with tiny dogs and expensive manicures stroll the sidewalks, and the park itself is gated - with only those lucky enough to live in a building facing onto the park being given keys - proving that it's something worth locking up. If you squint your eyes and look at Gramercy, you might think you were walking around the Upper East Side. In fact, Gramercy and its namesake park are some distance downtown from the Upper East Side, but both neighborhoods have many characteristics in common.

And Gramercy isn't just a pretty face - with its rich architectural history and fascinating cultural background, the neighborhood offers more to its residents than just an impressive mailing address.

Grand Old Gramercy

Back in 1831, what is now Gramercy Park and the surrounding tree-lined neighborhood was a marshy swampland. The area was reclaimed in the 1830s and saw much of its initial development happen in the 1840s and 1850s. Brick and brownstone row houses were erected, along with several lavish mansions. This was all pre-Civil War Victorian-style architecture; even then, the Gramercy area was pretty exclusive. Through the years of economic change and development of the neighborhood, that quality has remained - the last 150 years have been very kind to Gramercy and its park.

The Birth of the Apartment Building

In the 1870s, Richard Morris designed the Stuyvesant Apartments, which - though now demolished - was considered to be the first real "apartment building" in the city. Of course there was tenement housing before that, but Morris' building catered to the middle- and upper-class New York family, and in doing so created a whole new clientele.

Other buildings capitalized on Stuyvesant's idea, and 129 E. 17th Street was built in 1878. This building is now thought to be the oldest apartment building in New York City, while the nearby Gramercy (at 34 Gramercy Park East) is the oldest co-op in the city. These buildings were large for their day - big enough to house 20 or 30 families within their walls.

In the early 1900s, architects such as Sass Smallheiser were enlisted to design buildings in the area. Smallheiser crafted the striking Beaux-Arts building at 144 E. 22nd Street and Bernstein & Bernstein's neighboring building, replete with terracotta detailing and stepped gables. The row houses and townhouses built during this time (at least one of which was designed to be populated exclusively by bachelors - its designers purposely omitted kitchens in all units) all contributed to the charm and desirability of the area.

The construction of the grand Gramercy Park Hotel in 1924 heralded a distinct change in the neighborhood's demographics. By that time, many of the more affluent families were moving to the more impressive, more fashionable Upper East Side, and a lot of the mansions on and around Gramercy Park were being converted from single-family homes to apartment buildings. A lot of the façades of the buildings were redesigned to update their look, and some of the bigger residences were converted into loft space - or even factory space, as on 4th Avenue South, now known as Park Avenue South.

Charm and Charity

During the turn of the last century, much of the artistic and cultural richness that personifies Gramercy began to develop - progressive reformers spilled into the area in the late 1800s and turned it into a hotbed of artistic activity and charity work. In the span of only a few short years, the number of schools, parks, baths, courts and civic structures around Gramercy Park leapt dramatically. In 1892 and 1893 alone, the United Charities, the Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the Church Missions House all became residents of the neighborhood. The area was desirable for these organizations for many reasons, but mostly due to the fact that while Gramercy had always been seen as a "respectable" address, and was located close to mass transit lines, it was a tad less expensive than the fashionable neighborhoods farther uptown.

In addition to charity, the neighborhood attracted celebrity as well; a list of early Gramercy habitués reads like a "Who's Who" of the literary and theatrical patrons of the day. The School of Visual Arts at 17 Gramercy Park now occupies the former home of Joseph Pulitzer; future president John F. Kennedy lived in the Gramercy Park Hotel for years with his parents, and John Steinbeck lived at Tudor-style No. 38 from 1925 to 1926. Albert Schweitzer was a frequent guest at the hotel, and novelist O. Henry was often seen in the bars around the park. The National Arts Club (which relocated to Gramercy Park in 1906) boasted Teddy Roosevelt and art collector Henry Frick as members.

Another famous Gramercy club - the Players - was begun by Edwin Booth in 1888. Aside from being known for being the brother of Lincoln's assassin, Edwin Booth was also a successful actor in his day and felt that there should be place for him and his perpetually under-appreciated group of friends to socialize and hold events. To this day - after finally abolishing its no-women-allowed policy in 1989 - the Players remains a posh, exclusive get-together spot for the New York theatre in-crowd. Members have included Frank Sinatra, Irving Berlin, and the Barrymore family.

Gramercy's Golden Touch

Today, people flock to Gramercy for the same reasons they have for decades: between the park, the privacy, the quiet, and the impressive roster of luminaries, Gramercy is one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Manhattan. According to Tamir Shemesh, executive vice president at Douglas Elliman, and a Gramercy-dweller himself, properties of any size in the neighborhood are hard to come by.

Gloria Johnson, senior vice president of Stribling & Associates' Chelsea office, has lived in Gramercy since 1975 and was dubbed "the Guru of Gramercy" by New York magazine in April of 1999. According to Johnson, people who come to the neighborhood generally stay there - and she is a prime example of this.

Part of residents' reluctance to go anywhere else - aside from the simple fact that they love their neighborhood - is that property values are so high in the area. "We just sold a co-op recently that showed how in demand they are right now," says Shemesh. "The owner originally was going to ask for $775,000. This was a 1,000 square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath unit that needed a good amount of work. There were three offers right away, and we finally sold for over $825,000."

Shemesh says the value of property around Gramercy Park is more or less reflective of what's been going on in the city as a whole over the last decade.

"The growth in New York City in the past six months alone has been incredible," he says. "We're talking a 15 percent increase in prices in the past year alone. I started here in 1994, and the prices are now two to three times as much as they were then. You could've gotten a one-bedroom [in Gramercy] for $60,000 eight years ago. Those same units are going for $400,000 now."

According to Johnson, what you get for your money in the neighborhood can vary. "At One Lexington, [apartments] average about 3,000 square feet, and at 45 Gramercy Park, they're about 2,300 square feet, but at Number 34, they're only about 500 square feet. Sometimes buyers get two and combine them."

(A quick bit of Gramercy trivia: According to Johnson, the largest private home in the city is located at Number 10 Gramercy Park - the old Salzburg House.)

No matter what the size, however, "I don't think any condo is going to sell for anything under $675,000," Shemesh continues. "That's minimum. Co-ops are cheaper, definitely. A one-bedroom condo starts at about $350,000. We just had a showing of a co-op the other day and 40 to 50 people showed up to bid. It will eventually be sold at around $400,000."

It's the same story with rental prices as well. According to brokers working in the area, studio and one-bedroom walk-ups in Gramercy rent for around $1,750 and go up from there. For a full service building with a doorman and an elevator, renters are looking at $2,100 per month - at least.

With prices in that range, the demographic in Gramercy is fairly homogenous. "Paralegals and secretaries are priced out these days, says Shemesh. "The prices have gone up so far, the only people who can afford to live there are people like bankers, attorneys, doctors."

Johnson agrees. "New Yorkers working in the Financial District - Wall Streeters, financiers, and so forth - are the ones who can afford to live there, though I'm seeing a lot more families with kids there these days, as well as young couples."

And what about the famous, exclusive Gramercy Park itself? Who gets access, and who has to hang around outside the bars of the fence and peer in at the lush greenery and shady trees? "When you're inside the park itself," says Johnson, "it's just a magical place. It has a feeling about it that's very hard to describe."

And not everybody gets the chance to come in and experience that feeling for themselves. "You can't just come and get the key," says Shemesh. "You have to live on the park itself; you can't get a key if you live even one block away. It's New York City's only private park, and that makes it exclusive to the 20 or so buildings that surround the actual park. Even if you live there, you have to apply to get the key and [the park board] changes the keys every year."

But there's more than just the park and the beautiful architecture to see in the neighborhood. MOMA's Gramercy Theater is located at 127 E. 23rd Street (between Lexington and Park) and is a great place to see progressive and classic art films that only an institution like MOMA can work into its programming. This past May a street fair was held with great success in the Gramercy Park/Murray Hill area, entertaining guests with arts and crafts, merchandise, art demos and food from over 200 vendors.

Aside from park gawkers and the occasional street fair, it's the quietude and exclusivity that draws Gramercy dwellers to their little urban oasis, however.

"It depends on whether you're an uptown person or a downtown person," says Johnson of the reasons why someone of means would choose Gramercy over the Upper East Side. "Gramercy is still considered Downtown, and there's great transportation, great schools, and great convenience. Interestingly, I have a lot of British people interested in Gramercy, and there's a sizeable British population there."

"It's a prestigious address, it's true," adds Shemesh. "But what's more, is the privacy, and proximity to other neighborhoods. I dine and go out there, and spend time in the East Village and in Soho. When it's time to go home, I can walk there in minutes and I have a quiet, private place of my own. The neighborhoods change dramatically around here, but Gramercy is a quiet place away from the rest of the city."

Mary Fons is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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