Most New York neighborhood have their ups and downs. Not Gramercy Park. Ever since land developer Samuel B. Ruggles drained the swamp that was here and set up a private park, Gramercy has been swanksville, boasting the most genteel air of moneyed aristocracy to be found in the entire city. There may not be many Olde New York aristocrats around any more, but you can fairly breathe money in the area, as well as the strong scent of civilized reserve and principled preservation. It's the closest Gotham gets to Mayfair, or the New York Edith Wharton must have experienced. One can feel more evolved simply by walking down E. 20th from Park to Third.
THE ROOSEVELT HOME: Start at 28 E. 20th Street between Broadway and Park Avenue South. This is Teddy Roosevelt’s birthplace. Or, rather, a facsimile of it. People assume this brownstone is the original. But Teddy’s house was torn down in 1916 and replaced by a commercial building. Citizens loyal to Roosevelt, however, bought the new building in 1919, tore it down, and built the image of Roosevelt’s birthhome. Weird. It wouldn’t happen today. No. 26, a museum now, was Theodore’s uncle Robert’s place.
No. 1 GRAMERCY PARK WEST: Walk east to Gramercy Park West and turn left. In the 1850s, Dr. Valentine Mott lived here, the most renowned surgeon of his day and founder of Bellevue. I just mention it because I love the name Valentine Mott.
No. 4 GRAMERCY PARK WEST: Notice the twin lanterns that mark the gate. This used to be a sign to all New Yorkers that a mayor lived or had lived in the house. In this case, it was James Harper, mayor of New York in 1844 and founder of the Harper publishing house. What are the chances of a literary man being elected mayor today? Great, New Orleans-like ironwork all over the place.
GRAMERCY PARK HOTEL: Turn right at Gramercy Park North and stop at Lex. At 2 Lexington Avenue, near the park, is one of the city's legendary hotels. Built in 1925. It had an attractive bohemian character, having been home at times to Edmund Wilson, Mary McCarthy, Humphrey Bogart, S.J. Perelman, Bob Dylan and such. It's owned by Ian Schrager now and not as bohemian. Used to have a great bar, and a beloved bellhop named Pinky.
GRAMERCY PARK: The only private park left in Manhattan. It's 1 ½ acres of beautifully preserved land, and contains a statue of Edwin Booth playing Hamlet. You need to live on the park to get a key to the gate, which sucks, and can get your back up in a Marxist kind of way. But it's not hard to befriend someone who has access to a key, and gain access. They used to open up the park to the Great Unwashed once a year, but that practice was discontinued in 2007. The land was laid out in 1831 by Samuel B. Ruggles—who also mapped and named lower Lexington Avenue, and named Irving Place after his friend Washington. The area became the home of the elite for quite a while. Can’t speak for how elite the people are today, but it's just as expensive a place to live as it ever was. Still elegant, too.
THE BROTHERHOOD SYNAGOGUE: Round the park to where Gramercy Park East meets Gramercy Park South. Built in 1857 as a Friends Meeting House, this was converted to a synagogue in 1975.
THE PLAYERS CLUB: Turn right, walk to 16 Gramercy Park South. Actor Edwin Booth bought this handsome building, revamped it and formed the Players Club back in 1888, when actors were outcasts and had no smart club to call their own. It's still in business, though hardly the center of the theatre world that it once was. If you're invited to go inside, do. The walls are full of grand old paintings and drawing of the great actors of America's past, including a couple by John Singer Sargent. Also, in various cabinets, are props and costumes used by the likes of Booth, Barrymore, Jefferson and more. The charming Grill in the basement makes for a wonderful lunch date. Booth lived on the top floor and his rooms are kept exactly as they were. Spooky.
NATIONAL ARTS CLUB: Right next door is the National Arts Club. Founded in 1898 by Charles de Kay, a literary and art critic for The New York Times then, forgotten today. It was conceived of a gathering place for artists, patrons and audiences in all the arts. The building, 15 Gramercy Park, used to be the mansion of the Al-Gore-of-his-day, Samuel Tilden. Tilden was Governor of New York, but is most famous today for having won the national popular vote in 1876, but lost the Presidency to Rutherford B. Hayes, due to Electoral College mischief on the part of southern Republicans. (Florida was one of the disputed states, if you can believe it.) Tilden has taste. He hired architect Calvert Vaux (Central Park) and stained-glass genius John LaFarge to revamp the place. Glass master Donald MacDonald created a stained glass dome for the building. After the election, Tilden feared for his safety. Under the building there is supposedly a tunnel to 19th Street, perfect for a quick getaway.
IRVING PLACE: Backtrack to Irving Place, which takes up on the south side of the park the path Lexington traced to the north. It's not often that New York honors its literary sons with street names. Irving Place, named after Washington Irving, New York City's first author superstar, is a rare exception.
PETE'S TAVERN: Walk down to the corner of 18th Street. Forever warring with McSorley’s for the title of New York’s oldest saloon is Pete’s Tavern, which has ridden the coattails of writer O. Henry for a century now. A well-known drinker, the short story writer is supposed to have been a habitué and written “The Gift of the Magi” while sitting in the second booth to the right as you enter. The story, so specific in its claim, sounds fishy. But I’m willing to bet O. Henry darkened the door once or twice. The front room is the place to be; it’s the original space. The back rooms have less charm. Eat if you must, but the food is exceedingly indifferent. (O. Henry lived at 55 Irving Place, btw.)
190 THIRD AVENUE: Walk over to Third Avenue and down to 17th. A curious building that has somehow escaped destruction. It was built in 1894 as Scheffel Hall, a German music hall named after German balladeer Joseph Victor von Scheffel. It was later Allaire's, a restaurant that was yet another haunt of O. Henry (can't get away from the guy in Gramercy), and Joe King’s Rathskeller, and then Fat Tuesday’s Jazz Club, where Les Paul was a regular. Signs of its past existences can be found on the façade.