8.12.2009

A Guide to Gramercy Park: A Checklist, But Not a Key, & Dining Suggestions

From Summer 2009

"At noonday the landscape is just as fine, just as mysterious and just as significant as it is at twilight." - Robert Henri, The Art Spirit (1923)

The scene is cool, summery and inviting, but this attractive corner of Gramercy Park is off limits to those without a key. It's one of the only two private parks in New York City. The other is in Queens. When I walked around the park last week, the only residents I glimpsed through the fence were toddlers in strollers accompanied by their nannies. An older residential section of Manhattan to the east of Park Avenue South and between E 20th St. and E 21st St., Gramercy Park exudes an aura of elite privilege and discretion.

Home to well-known actors and famous artists as well as members of New York society and politics throughout its history, the neighborhood makes a particularly good strolling destination. There's not much to do here except look at the buildings surrounding the park and on nearby streets (especially the so-called Block Beautiful on E. 19th), but since Gramercy Park sits at the center of one of the city's best restaurant areas, the streets around the park are perfect for a pre-dinner or post-lunch walk.

• The Park. The locked, fenced private park is accessible only to those with a key. An article in the NYT from June 19, 2008 profiles the park's guardian and self-appointed mayor and discusses some of the disputes among the neighbors about access. According to the article, about 400 keys exist. Many do not use them.

• TV series. Several TV series have used the park as a location including Ugly Betty, Fringe, Gossip Girl, and Law & Order (all franchises). I remember a particular Law & Order in which the victim was found in the park.

Gramercy Park Hotel, 2 Lexington Avenue, NW corner Gramercy Park North and Lexington Ave. Julian Schnabel's interior is flamboyantly cool and with exceptional paintings by the artist, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and others. With a tremendous fireplace, it feels like a Texas-French contemporary arts hacienda. Hotelier Ian Schrager also developed 50 Gramercy Park North, the private residences at the hotel. The hotel was famous as a comfortable bohemian destination long before its current renovation. A documentary by Douglas Keeve, Hotel Gramercy Park (2008), looks at the drama behind the scenes during the renovation.

• 10 Gramercy Park South. Home and studio of Ashcan School artist and teacher Robert Henri (1865-1929). Painter George Bellows also lived on the street.

• 15 Gramercy Park South. National Arts Club. 1845 mansion updated in 1880s by Calvert Vaux. Originally Samuel Tilden House. Nice Gothic Revival, featured in Martin Scorcese's The Age of Innocence (1993) based on the novel by Edith Wharton.

• 16 Gramercy Park South. Home to The Players, theatrical club, and where actor and club founder Edwin Booth lived. A statue of Edwin Booth in the park depicts the actor as Hamlet.

• 3 Gramercy Park West. Actor John Garfield died here in 1952 while visiting his friend Iris Whitney. #3 and #4 feature impressive ironwork.

• 34 Gramercy Park East. 1883. This dark castle with a marble entrance was once home to Margaret Hamilton, John Carradine, James Cagney and other celebrities.

• 36 Gramercy Park East. 1908-1910. White Gothic, 12-story building with armored knights at the entrance. John Barrymore lived here from 1910-1916. Barbara Stanwyck's character in the movie East Side, West Side (1949) lived in this building.

• 27-30 Gramercy Park South. Brotherhood Synagogue, formerly Friends Meeting House. Pretty side garden.

• The Block Beautiful. E. 19th St. between Irving Place and Third Ave., is a stretch of well-kept townhouses with individual flourishes.

Lovely, yes, but don't let the outward serenity of Gramercy Park fool you. Historically, there's been a lot of drama behind the scenes, much of it focused on the past, present, and future of the neighborhood.

The larger Gramercy Park area, together with the nearby Flatiron District, Union Square and Madison Square is well-known as a dining destination. I've listed some recommendations on the map below.


View Gramercy Park Dining in a larger map

Image at top by Walking Off the Big Apple. August 2009.

See also the post E. B. White and The New York of Stuart Little. I explore the street to the south, Irving Place, in this section of my New York Christmas walk.

Well, at least we know of someone who has the key to Gramercy Park.

6 comments:

Terry B, Blue Kitchen said...

Interesting history, Teri. I have to admit, this kind of blatant exclusivity and privilege rankles me.

Teri Tynes said...

Terry, I go back and forth on this. Like you, it bothers me that such an elitist privilege has held on to this day. The park sits along public streets, and I would like to see it opened to the public one day. On the other hand, the mystique of the key seems quaint and charming, two qualities worth keeping.

James Nevius said...

While they love to put dead bodies in the park on Law & Order, they can't ever get a key either -- so they film in nearby Stuyvesant Square. (Maybe that can be on your next walk!)

Teri Tynes said...

That's a good one, James. Law & Order is endless with the NY locales. Stuyvesant Square is rather charming, too, and I should get over there sometime soon.

Anonymous said...

Love it!! Wish I had a key!!

Anonymous said...

I've lived on the park since 2005 in a small apartment. I'm not one of the privileged, just happy to buy on the park. Most people do no know that all key holders pay extra $ each month for a gardner 6 days a week to constantly take care of the park. If it were open to the public, the city would not care of it the same way. We all know what those parks look like.