Archibald Gracie, a man accustomed to getting what he wanted, was one of a remarkable coterie of aggressive merchants who in the early nineteenth century helped make New York City the commercial capital of the United States. Scottish-born, the son of a weaver, Gracie had clerked for a London shipping firm and acquired a part interest in a ship. In 1784, not yet thirty, he sailed to America in charge of a full cargo of goods whose profits went directly into his pocket. With this windfall he helped form a mercantile company in New York, then transferred to Petersburg, Virginia, where he made a bundle trading tobacco. Back in New York in 1793 he went into business as a commissary merchant and shipowner. A friend of Alexander Hamilton and John Jay and a member of the Tontine Association, which supervised the trading of stocks, active in insurance and banking affairs, Gracie was one of the most powerful men in town. Although he maintained a principal residence near his office downtown, he presently began looking for a spot in the outlying countryside on which to build a suitable summer home.
He got the best—one of the supreme sites in New York, located on the East River near present-day Eighty-eighth Street and commanding an unexampled view of the treacherous strait known as Hell Gate. Gracie in 1799 constructed a comfortable Federal-style center-hall dwelling that faced roughly south to give him a good view of the river. A few years later, however, perhaps realizing he had scanted his main attraction, he added onto the north side, rearranged interior walls, and turned the house’s axis ninety degrees to orient it to the east, with a new front door dramatically facing Hell Gate. (The switch produced an imbalance of windows on the eastern facade that most visitors hardly notice.) The wide porch that surrounded the house on three sides was, like the roofline, surmounted with delicate trellis railings, while the interior was sumptuous, with exquisitely carved Adam mantels and delicate chandeliers. It was a marvelous setting for parties, and Gracie gave elaborate ones, gathering under his roof the likes of John Quincy Adams, Washington Irving, and Louis Philippe, future king of France.
The splurging was short-lived. During Jefferson’s ruinous embargo of 1807 to 1809, Gracie lost two valuable ships laden with gold and silver; other setbacks followed, and his fortune disappeared. In 1823 he sold his beloved mansion; he died six years later.
Luckily the two families that owned the mansion during the next sixty years cared for it well. The same could not be said of the city, which acquired the property in 1896 following condemnation proceedings because of a park it was constructing nearby (today’s Carl Schurz Park). The ornamental trellis railings were torn off, and the house became a kind of shabby outbuilding in the park. For a while it housed public rest rooms and an ice-cream parlor. In the 1920s it briefly served as the first home of the Museum of the City of New York, but in 1932 it again fell vacant.
Its rescuer, oddly enough, was Robert Moses, New York’s immensely creative and domineering parks commissioner and a man ordinarily more given to wiping out his city’s past than to preserving it. In 1934 Moses was busy upgrading Carl Schurz Park, and he insisted that the mansion be properly restored; he got it a new roof and porch, new clapboards, and much needed interior repairs. Then, during the late 1930s, when the East River Drive was being built—it actually tunnels under the front lawn—Moses proposed that the house become the mayor’s official residence. Fiorello La Guardia, who was mayor at the time, would have none of it: too fancy, he said. But as his widow later recalled, “Bob Moses wore him down.” The La Guardias moved there in 1942, and New York’s chief executives have been there ever since.
In the 1960s a large and tasteful back wing for receptions and other official functions was added at the suggestion of, and under the guidance of, Mayor Robert F. Wagner’s wife Susan. Recently, a private group called the Gracie Mansion Conservancy was organized to help furnish and maintain the house, and under its tutelage superb paintings and fine period pieces—all from New York originally—have been introduced, and delightful gardens planted about the grounds. Archibald Gracie would have been happy to see his old country seat serving so handsomely as the number-one house of the nation’s number-one city.