H I S T O R Y
During the initial period of neighborhood development, primarily in the 1840s and 1850s, the streets of Gramercy Park became solidly lined with brick and brownstone rowhouses and mansions, as well as institutional buildings such as churches, that were commonly found in residential areas. As would be expected, the lots facing the private Gramercy Park itself were among the most prestigious places of residence in pre-Civil War New York. Examples of the fine houses erected during this period can still be seen on Gramercy Park West and South, within the designated district.
Rowhouses also lined most of the side streets between 14th and 23rd streets, and a significant number of these still survive on the blocks to the south of the park. Some of these rowhouses are within the designated district, notably those on East 18th and East 19th streets between Irving Place and Third Avenue. Additional rowhouses on East 19th Street are within the proposed Gramercy Park Historic District Extension; others, on East 17th Street, are within the proposed 17th Street/Irving Place Historic District; and a few on East 15th and East 16th Streets are being proposed for individual designation. To the north of the park, on East 22nd Street, was a mix of rowhouses and carriage houses, while Lexington Avenue between the park and East 23rd Street contained two mansions. Very little that dates from this early period of development remains to the north or east of the park, with the exception of a series of simple mid-19th-century Greek Revival and early Italianate mixed-use residential/commercial buildings on Third Avenue, all within the proposed Gramercy Park Historic District Extension.
A new period of development in the Gramercy Park area was ushered in in 1869 with the construction of the Stuyvesant Apartments on East 18th Street (demolished). Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, this is generally credited with being the earliest apartment building erected to attract a middle-class clientele. In the 1870s and 1880s, the Stuyvesant was joined by a series of other early apartment houses, notably 129 East 17th Street (1878), thought to be the oldest intact apartment house in the city. Several important multiple dwellings were erected during the 1880s, including the Gramercy at 34 Gramercy Park East (George da Cunha, 1883; within the designated district), one of the earliest cooperatives in New York, and 155 East 22nd Street, designed in 1889 by DeLemos Cordes, the earliest extant multiple dwelling erected in the section of the neighborhood north of the park.
In the decades that followed, apartment-house construction flourished on East 22nd Street and on Gramercy Park North and, to a lesser extent, on the streets south of the park. Early in the 20th century, two interesting apartment houses joined DeLemos Cordes' building on 22nd Street between Third and Lexington avenues: Sass Smallheiser's Beaux-Arts building at 144 East 22nd Street (1901) and Bernstein Bernstein's unusual building at 152-156 East 22nd Street (1907) with its five stepped gables and extensive terra-cotta detail. In 1912, a multiple dwelling planned specifically for bachelors appeared at 52 Irving Place. This handsome Colonial Revival style structure with suites of rooms that lacked kitchen facilities was one of a small group of New York apartment houses planned for single men in the early years of the 20th century.
During the 1920s, the character of Gramercy Park North was completely transformed as the old rowhouses were replaced by tall luxury apartment houses and a hotel. The first apartment house along the park's northern face was 1 Lexington Avenue, begun in 1910. Between 1926 and 1929, three additional large-scale apartment houses were begun on Gramercy Park North, and in 1924 work began on the Gramercy Park Hotel at the northwest corner of Gramercy Park North and Lexington Avenue; the hotel was extended in 1929-30, completing the transformation of this park frontage. Contemporary with the Gramercy Park North buildings is the flamboyant apartment house at 81 Irving Place, northwest corner East 19th Street, designed by George Pelham and ornamented with fantastical terra-cotta detail.
In the second and third decades of the 20th century, during the time when many of the large apartment houses were being developed on Gramercy Park, a change occurred in the design and use of many of the surviving side-street rowhouses. By the early 20th century, few of these houses were being maintained as single-family dwellings. The affluent families who had inhabited them had moved elsewhere, and the Gramercy Park neighborhood lost some of its social standing. Most of the rowhouses were converted into boarding houses or into apartments. Many of the houses had their facades redesigned, as occurred on East 19th Street within the historic district, or underwent less radical changes, such as the removal of a stoop (this facilitated the rearrangement of the interiors for apartment use). Although the facades of many of the surviving rowhouses located to the south of the park remain intact, others exhibit these early 20th-century alterations.
The changing character of the neighborhood caused by the movement of prosperous residents to other areas had a second result, the redevelopment of certain sites into loft and factory buildings. Commercial redevelopment moved eastward, into the Gramercy Park neighborhood, from the Ladies' Mile along Broadway. By the early 20th century, loft buildings were being erected on Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South) and on many of the adjacent side streets, appearing as far east as Irving Place.
The most interesting development to the north of Gramercy Park was the transformation of the area just south of 23rd Street into a center for charitable institutions. In the late 19th century, New York's charitable organizations grew in number and size, in response to the growing interest that middle- and upper-class reformers had in attempting to change conditions in the city's growing poor and immigrant communities. The reformers established or invigorated organizations that furthered new developments in housing, health, education, social work, and other fields and offered charity to certain poor people in need. Their work represents the explosion of organized efforts by affluent citizens to effect change in the city. Not all of the efforts of these reformers led to positive changes, but they were able to accomplish many important reforms which set the stage for much of 20th-century American social policy.
The growth of the charitable organizations and the expansion of their missions led to a corresponding growth in the number and scale of buildings erected to serve the needs of both organizations and the city's needy population. In the last years of the 19th century and first decades of the 20th century, progressive reformers successfully petitioned for an increase in the number of schools, parks, public baths, courts, and other civic structures, and they built settlement houses for the poor and office buildings to meet their own needs. There are four buildings in the proposed historic-district extension that were built to house the headquarters of important institutions - the United Charities Building, the Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Building, the Church Missions House (a designated individual landmark), all build in 1892-93, and the Russell Sage Foundation Building, built initially in 1912-1915 and extended in 1929-31. The Gramercy Park area may have attracted these charitable institutions because it remained a respectable neighborhood, it was centrally located and convenient to mass-transit lines, and land was less expensive here than in newly fashionable areas to the north.
In addition to the headquarters buildings for philanthropic organizations, four buildings were erected as centers of progressive social programs - the Manhattan Trade School for Girls (1915-19), the Children's Court (1912-1916), and the Domestic Relations Court Building (1937-39) are all within the boundaries of the proposed historic district extension, while Washington Irving High School is in the proposed 17th Street/Irving Place Historic District. Each of the buildings erected for charitable or civic purposes is of historical and/or architectural interest in its own right; together they create an extremely important complex of major social-service buildings.
The designation of the proposed historic district extension, and of the additional district and series of individual buildings, as proposed by Gramercy Neighborhood Associates, Inc., will preserve the comprehensive history of the architectural and social development of Gramercy Park.