As the oldest residential neighborhood in New York City, the Gramercy Park area is rich in history and charm. Tucked away here, in what has long been regarded as one of the quietest and safest areas of the city, are prime properties in a location sought after for its convenience, peaceful atmosphere, and urbane qualities.
Bordering Midtown East and the East Village, the Gramercy neighborhood is bound between 17th Street and 22nd Street to the north and south and between Second Avenue and Park Avenue South to the east and west.
The neighborhood was originally developed by Samuel B. Ruggles, who bought the then-farmland from the Duane family in 1831. Ruggles drained the marshy site and laid the first building lots around the square that would become the neighborhood's namesake, Gramercy Park.
Today, Gramercy Park is the only remaining private park in the City, with the next closest of its kind being Sunnyside Gardens Park in Queens, which is privately owned by the residents of that area. Gramercy Park is accessible exclusively to the residents of about 40 select buildings surrounding the square. There are about 400 outstanding keys distributed among the residents of those properties, says Patricia Dugan, associate broker and director of exclusive sales services for Corcoran Group Real Estate, though not every eligible person elects to receive a key. This may be a result of the accompanying responsibility: Each key costs an initial fee of $350, and a lost key incurs a $1000 replacement fee. For many years in the mid-to late-19th century, the keys were made of solid gold, according to Glories of the Gramercy Park Area: A Walking Tour by Carole Klein.
In addition to the park, a major asset of the area is the section of East 19th Street between Irving Place and Third Avenue - called "Block Beautiful." Brick and brownstone row houses built circa 1850 mainly comprise this quaint, tree-lined block, many of which were revamped by London-born architect Frederick J. Sterner in the beginning of the 20th century, at a time when prominent artists and writers were turning Gramercy Park into a creative and intellectual center. The makeover defined Sterner's signature style - a Mediterranean-inspired mix of tinted stucco, brightly glazed tiles, and decorative ironwork - and earned this area its title "Block Beautiful" in 1914. Originally penned by Harriet S. Gillespie in American Homes and Gardens, the title is still in use today.
"'Bucolic' is the word most used to describe it," says Roberta Golubock, senior vice president for Sotheby's International Realty, of the block. "It's the quintessential downtown space."
In the middle of Block Beautiful, at 141 East 19th Street, stands a five-story, 5,000 square-foot townhouse - former home of the late designer Abbijane Schifrin. The 10-room residence - part of which has been painted in pastels and decorated in what could be called sophisticated eccentricity - was originally built in 1855 and is currently listed at $8.75 million by Sotheby's International Realty. The interior's English Tudor décor has retained many of Sterner's colorful accents, including oak-paneled walls, decorative plaster ceilings, massive fireplaces, copper finishes, and intricate light fixtures. In fact, this property is one of the best preservations of Sterner's work, according to The Row House Reborn: Architecture and Neighborhoods in New York City, 1908-1929 by Andrew S. Dolkart.
Around the corner from Block Beautiful is a luxury building at 65 Irving Place - the five-story, $12 million former home and showroom of Londoner Keith Skeel, owner of Keith Skeel Antiques and Eccentricities. The townhouse's top three floors include two bedrooms, 2.5 baths, and two private terraces - not an uncommon amenity in the area. The first two floors and basement are commercially zoned, but the building could be made entirely residential, Dugan says. It does not directly border the park, but is located on a coveted corner of Gramercy. "It's a beautiful little oasis of calm," he says.
Aside from the 19th Street area, the neighborhood is more heavily populated by apartment dwellings. In fact, East 17th Street, just two blocks away, boasts the oldest apartment building in the City, built by architect Napoleon LeBrun around the year 1880 and still occupied today. Similarly, the brownstone building at 34 Gramercy Park East was the first co-op built in the city. The area is mostly dominated by pre-war and Victorian structures, but is also spotted with newer properties erected in the 1950s and 60s. An overall trend of the area, though, shows a steady increase in property values with closer proximity to the park.
In 1966, the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the neighborhood the Gramercy Park Historic District. Appropriately, it is home to two neighboring National Historic Landmarks: the National Arts Club, founded in 1898 and located at 15 Gramercy Park South in the Tilden Mansion; and The Players club, founded in 1888 and located at 16 Gramercy Park South, in a Greek Revival townhouse. The Players was founded by the likes of Mark Twain, John Drew, and Edwin Booth, whose likeness stands at the center of the park.
Adding further character to the neighborhood is Pete's Tavern on East 18th Street, famed as the place author O. Henry did much of his writing. In fact, it's said that he wrote Gift of the Magi there in 1904, while sitting at his favorite booth near the door. Pete's opened in 1864 and has remained open since, making it the longest continuously operating bar and restaurant in the City. It stayed open even during Prohibition in the 1920s, under the guise of a flower shop.
Newer to the neighborhood are three fine dining restaurants headed by some of the top names in food: Namely, Gramercy Tavern, at 42 East 20th Street, owned by restaurateur Danny Meyer; Craft, at 43 East 19th Street, under the proprietorship of Tom Colicchio, head judge on the reality TV series "Top Chef"; and Casa Mono, at 52 Irving Place, owned by celebrity chef Mario Batali. "The fact that three of the top restaurateurs in the country have chosen that area, I think that really says something about its appeal," Dugan says.